With a confused world speculating about Donald Trump’s foreign policy intentions, past statements by the US president-elect are being scrutinised for clues as to which of his radical pledges might come true. Despite having no track record in diplomacy, Trump has repeatedly made his world view clear, starting long before he entered the presidential race as a political outsider last year. As long as you are paying attention to the issues you raise, you don’t have to necessarily honour every word Michael Chertoff In the past 30 years, some things about Trump have never changed, according to Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs under George W. Bush: his denigration of Japan, Saudi Arabia and Nato allies and his praise for strongman leaders. “You do have to pay attention to what he says. It is indication of how he’s going to go,” said Burns, now professor of the practice of international relations at Harvard Kennedy School. “I take him seriously.” In the 1980s, the New York real estate developer began to appear on television shows and in print interviews complaining about Japan dumping cheap cars and electronic devices in the United States and defeating America economically. At the time, Japan was America’s major rival for economic pre-eminence and its companies were purchasing trophy assets in the US like the Rockefeller Centre in Manhattan. On September 2, 1987, Trump published full-page advertisements in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe that were billed as an “open letter from Donald J. Trump”. “Make Japan, Saudi Arabia, and others pay for the protection we extend as allies,” he said in the advertisements, which cost him a total of US$94,801. Trump urged America to “‘tax’ these wealthy nations” and allow its economy to grow by relieving itself of “the cost of defending those who can easily afford to pay us for the defence of their freedom”. “Let’s not let our great country be laughed at any more,” he concluded. The 70-year-old adopted a similar tone in his presidential campaign, refining the message into the slogan “Make America Great Again” and adding China to the list of those accused of being “currency manipulators” and “job thieves”. In pursuing protectionism, Donald Trump is taking a leaf from Asia’s book In the course of 16 months of campaigning, Burns added, Trump also consistently demonstrated his disapproval of America’s trade agreements, alliance system and military overcommitment. That sounded the death knell for the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade pact, dubbed a potential disaster by Trump , with its demise confirmed last month when the president-elect said in a video posted on YouTube that he would withdraw the US from it on his first day in office. “It’s a great mistake, but I think he’s going to carry through with this great mistake,” Burns said, referring to an important strategic rationale for the TPP, which was not to let China write the rules of global trade. John Negroponte, a former director of national intelligence and deputy secretary of state under George W. Bush who is now professor of international affairs at George Washington University, said killing off the TPP would create a “short-term opportunity” for China to promote its own version of a regional free-trade agreement. In the YouTube video, Trump said he would instead look to negotiate bilateral trade deals, with the intention of creating American jobs. Trump’s 1987 call for America to tax other nations evolved into a campaign pledge to impose a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese imports. ‘Breathtaking’ resistance to Romney becoming secretary of state, says top Trump aide Burns said it was inconceivable that the US would begin a trade war with China next year, but any US administration would have to take a tough-minded approach to trade with the world’s biggest exporter given allegations of dumping and Beijing’s lack of compliance with international rules such as those protecting intellectual property rights. Michael Chertoff, a former secretary of homeland security under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said some of Trump’s campaign statements suggested an inclination, but not necessarily the exact policies he would implement. “As long as you are paying attention to the issues you raise, you don’t have to necessarily honour every word. You just have to kind of get the music, even if not the lyrics,” Chertoff said. Burns compared the proposed imposition of punitive tariffs on China with previous Trump remarks encouraging Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons, suggesting they would used to get President Xi Jinping’s attention in his first meeting with the new US president. “Trump wrote The Art of the Deal . What did he say in The Art of the Deal? You start with your maximum positions,” Burns said. In a surprise development, Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen had a telephone conversation on Friday, in which the two noted the close economic, political, and security ties between the island and the US. Taipei said the phone call was initiated by Tsai, and Beijing described the move as a “petty trick”. It is not known whether Trump intends to increase American engagement with Taiwan. The billionaire is viewed by Chinese leaders as a pragmatic businessman and a willing negotiator, according to Yun Sun, an expert in China’s foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, with many of Trump’s claims possibly opening positions for future negotiations. Many previous US presidential candidates had also branded China a currency manipulator, Yun said, with the accusation becoming “campaign rhetoric we have developed a fatigue about ... we are not going to take this super seriously”. Four reasons why Trump will learn a Chinese lesson on how isolationism never works Burns said one of the most “dangerous things” Trump said during the campaign – a threat to withdraw US troops from South Korea and Japan unless they contributed more financially – also harked back to earlier statements. While it might also be a negotiating gambit, Burns said, by simply saying what he had, Trump had already damaged America’s relationship with two key allies and eroded the foundation of its international strength. In New York on November 17, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the first foreign leader to meet the president-elect, hoping to “build trust” with America’s next commander in chief. “I hope [Trump’s opinion on Japan] will change because Japan is a very critical, very valued ally of the United States,” Burns said. He said that with North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile capabilities developing rapidly, and posing an urgent security challenge by possibly bringing the US mainland within range in the next few years, Trump should reinforce ties with Japan and South Korea and put pressure on Beijing to exercise its influence on Pyongyang. The deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea was a part of America’s leverage when dealing with China, he said. “For Donald Trump it is a very effective opening gambit – ‘we are going to double the force there if we have to’,” Burns said. Sun said the likelihood of any negotiation between Trump and Xi on the THAAD deployment would depend on how Trump defined America’s national interests on the Korean Peninsula. But Trump had never given any indication that he viewed North Korea as an issue of significance, simply saying “it’s China’s problem to fix”. The president-elect showed a similar lack of knowledge about other hot spots in the relationship between US and China such as the South China Sea, said Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of politics and international relations at International Christian University in Tokyo. Global financial rules: Trump looks determined to rip them up and start again But he will have a team and a mechanism to advise, check and balance him, and prevent his policies from becoming too subject to personal whim. Burns said: “Of course he has to rely on the advice of his senior cabinet officials … plus there’s career government, career foreign services, career ambassadors, career military.” Trump’s statements about putting America first and retreating from its role as the world’s policeman have led to debate about whether he is an isolationist. But Chertoff said it was more likely Trump would move back to the approach adopted by former secretary of state Henry Kissinger in the 1970s, which was focused on the balance of power and spheres of influence. “Stepping away from what would be regarded as the Russian sphere or Chinese sphere, that’s not isolationism,” Chertoff said. Jane Harman, president of the Washington-based Wilson Centre think tank, said none of the people named or tipped for top foreign policy posts in the Trump administration were isolationists. Trump has announced retired general Michael Flynn, a former director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, as his national security adviser, and another retired general, James Mattis, as his secretary of defence. Flynn has taken a tough stance on Islamism and Mattis has described “political Islam” as the major security issue facing the US. China to keep eye on Trump policies, vows to defend its trading rights Trump has yet to announce his pick for secretary of state, which will be another key indicator of his administration’s orientation. Chertoff said Trump would not go back to a classic, conservative, Republican set of policies, but “drive the bus himself in a sense that reflects his world view”. “The question is, will he have advisers he would listen to?” Harman said.