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China-US relations

More moderating role needed by Pompeo on Trump’s China stance

The successor to sacked US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has a background in government and is more in line with the thinking of the president

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 3:55am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 3:55am

Sacked US secretary of state Rex Tillerson was out of step with President Donald Trump. America’s two most important officials have to see eye to eye, so after expressing so many disparate views, the nation’s top diplomat had to go. In his place will be Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo, known for being a hardliner and hawkish. For China, that could mean continuing uncertain, and perhaps even troublesome, times ahead.

With Tillerson gone, who is there left for China to talk to?

Trump claims a close personal relationship with President Xi Jinping, yet the ties between their nations are fraught by trade and security concerns. The appointment of Pompeo does not ease matters, having expressed in January that he believed China was a bigger threat to the United States than Russia.

His position is in line with that laid out in the administration’s national security strategy and, given his opinions on Iran and North Korea, it would seem he shares a similar world view to Trump.

But he also has a reputation for pragmatism; there seems little chance he will insult Trump for being a “moron”, as Tillerson reputedly did.

Unlike Tillerson, Pompeo has a background in government, having served six years in Congress. That was perhaps the ousted secretary of state’s biggest failing; his business background that included being chief executive officer of ExxonMobil, one of the world’s biggest corporations, did not prepare him for the political reality of Washington and certainly not Trump’s combustible character. Told to cut costs at the state department and lacking an understanding of foreign policy, he gutted the nation’s bastion of diplomacy, forcing out or prompting top diplomats to flee while not taking sufficient notice of the vacancies that needed filling. To some, he is arguably among the worst US secretaries of state.

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The poor leadership was especially problematic for Beijing, which found it challenging to put policies into practice with so few officials to negotiate with. Xi’s top economic adviser, Liu He, found that out for himself during a recent US visit. Pompeo’s experience should make for smoother operations at the state department. His views being more closely aligned to those of Trump should also bring greater clarity to US foreign policy.

But the top US diplomat also needs to be pragmatic and aware of the importance of China to his country and the world. Trump has already launched his campaign to be re-elected in 2020 with the slogan “Keep America Great”, showing he will continue to put the interests of his country above all else. The flaw in that strategy is that there is more to be gained than lost by China and the US working together. Pompeo would be wise to also adopt a moderating role with Trump towards China and other countries.