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China-US relations

The Trump White House needs capable China hands to guide its US foreign policy

Chi Wang says if the US leader’s unexpected friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping is to result in a warmer bilateral relationship, Trump needs a more in-depth understanding of China than his team can currently provide

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 November, 2017, 10:35am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 November, 2017, 7:06pm

This week marked Donald Trump’s first visit to China as US president, but his ties to China go further back than his first friendly meeting with Xi Jinping this year at Mar-a-Lago. As a businessman, Trump has long been involved with China. He owns property and runs manufacturing businesses in China, as do his daughter and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Reportedly, Kushner was even instrumental in arranging the meeting between Trump and Xi that sparked a new relationship between the two presidents. Despite Trump’s campaign-trail rhetoric of taking a hardline stance against China, he and Xi have formed a surprising friendship: one that may lead to friendly policymaking on both sides.

Today, there is no US president, sitting or otherwise, who is as strong on China as Jimmy Carter. As the leader responsible for establishing formal Sino-US diplomatic relations in 1979, and for his dedication to improving Washington’s relationship with Beijing, he is among the most respected by Chinese leaders. No one like him remains.

Barack Obama had a particularly strained relationship with China. Despite his famous plan for a “pivot to Asia”, he left office having made numerous state visits to China, with little progress on any of his most important agendas, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. In fact, he even failed to convince Beijing that the pivot to Asia was anything more than a thinly veiled China containment strategy.

Americans just don’t have the knowledge or the background in China any more

Obama had little exposure to China before his presidency, and he became quickly disillusioned with a Beijing that was not eager to agree to his proposals. His early interactions with China, which included a failure to secure a deal at the 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen, quickly propagated a more cynical view of Beijing than his initially hopeful idealism, and he adjusted his strategy accordingly. Obama did not warm to China again.

Tentatively, Trump’s unexpected friendship with Xi could signal a potential thawing of Sino-American relations. The problem remains, however, that Trump’s White House and State Department are ill-prepared to tackle in-depth China policy. Their China “expert”, Peter Navarro, is a China hawk known for his scathing critiques of China’s foreign policy. He does not speak Chinese and is not a frequent visitor to China. In fact, his position is so well known, and possibly even detrimental to Trump’s friendship with Xi, that he did not even accompany Trump on his trip to Asia this week. Another of his advisers, Matt Pottinger, does speak Chinese, but he has little to no background on Asia security policy.

China-US talks: Meet the politicians and policymakers behind the presidents

The lack of China experts and advisers in the White House is telling. There are far more Japan experts in US government and foreign policy bodies. Americans just don’t have the knowledge or the background in China any more.

This was not always the case: academics and politicians played much larger roles in encouraging better US understanding of China in the 1970s than they do today. Ambassador John Holdridge was among the first to advise president Richard Nixon on his approach to normalising relations with Beijing, and he was a key part of Henry Kissinger’s secret initiative in 1971 to restore diplomatic relations. Richard Solomon, a former member of Nixon’s National Security Council, assisted with the historic “ping-pong diplomacy” that led to the normalisation. He also taught for five years at the University of Michigan, where his students were inspired by his knowledge in China. Ambassador Arthur Hummel spent his early years in China and retained a lifelong interest in and connection there that influenced his later career.

All of these men, who have since passed away, were among those instrumental in encouraging better US working knowledge of and diplomatic relations with China. The disappearance of these old China hands in the US and the continued lack of trust and understanding has not been good for either Washington or Beijing. Having someone like Navarro as the White House’s top “China expert” only further encourages mistrust on both sides.

It is important for any country hoping to improve relations with China to understand how Beijing works

The Communist Party’s 19th congress may have raised even more concerns for Americans, who cannot understand the significance of the event without understanding Chinese politics. The US has traditionally been sceptical of Beijing’s plans in the Asia-Pacific, as well as its stability under a one-party system of government. It’s possible, of course, that a one-party system is not sustainable for China. But then, even democratic Japan and Taiwan are ruled primarily by incumbent majority parties; on top of that, they’re often restrained by political infighting. The one-party system is not perfect, but it has at the very least been successful in implementing economic development, modernisation and reform. It is important for any country hoping to improve diplomatic relations with China to understand how Beijing works, and the United States is no exception.

The elevation of Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign minister, to the Politburo signals the rising importance Beijing is placing on its diplomatic relations. As China’s first foreign policy minister now on the Politburo, Yang’s appointment is an example of a China “elite” becoming prominent both at home and abroad. Although he is not as powerful as Zhou Enlai was in the late 20th century, Yang will play a similarly crucial role for Xi that Zhou played as an adviser for Mao Zedong. Xi needs a strong and experienced foreign policy adviser, and Yang has been the leading diplomat for years. Similarly, in the interest of pursuing more equal understanding and friendship, Americans also need to make an effort to return interest towards Beijing in the White House with a re-emergence of leading China hands in America.

Kushner could take a back seat in diplomacy with Beijing

Although many Chinese study abroad in the US, very few Americans do the same in China. Most Chinese abroad speak English; very few Americans speak Chinese. And while more young Americans are beginning to study Chinese language and history, there are still few politicians at the higher level of government with this expertise. The lack of depth in China expertise leads to inconsistent policymaking. This sends confusing signals to countries trying to make their own policies towards the US.

For young Chinese in America, however, there are ample opportunities for them to pursue friendships with their US classmates. They can encourage better understanding between both peoples.

China has always had America hands; now it’s time for the US to have leading China hands once again.

Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation