Donald Trump’s policy approach toward China and the Asia-Pacific region is a story yet to be written. The only thing observers in the United States and around the world know for sure is that uncertainty has increased drastically since Monday in economic, geostrategic, and political ties across the Pacific. In the coming weeks and months, answers to several crucial questions will emerge at an unpredictable rate. In this post, I outline several of those questions and then provide an initial reading list for those analyzing potential policy futures for Trump in Asia.
Questions Awaiting Answers
First, which of Donald Trump’s statements about Asia policy will translate to action? In the preliminary Trump-China reading list included below, Trump and those associated with his campaign make numerous provocative and sometimes contradictory statements. In January, then-Republican primary candidate Jeb Bush expressed early exasperation with the incoherence of Donald Trump’s various statements on China. Arguing for a traditional foreign policy, Bush said, “[Y]ou can’t do this by, you know, rambling around, by saying Putin can take care of ISIS; China can take care of North Korea, it’s their problem; and in the same—literally in a 24-hour news cycle, propose a 45 percent tariff on the country that you’re saying it’s your responsibility to take care of North Korea.”
Here, Bush neatly captures two illustrations of the uncertainty emanating from Trump’s statements. On Trump’s proposal for a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods, both the feasibility of such an idea and the Chinese and global reaction to any form of such a policy are highly uncertain. On assigning China responsibility for avoiding crisis on the Korean Peninsula, Trump would confront limits of Chinese willingness and capability. Each of these foundational Asia-Pacific provocations has been finessed later in the campaign, but no truly clear signals have emerged to counteract the nearly year-old uncertainty.
Second, who will be Trump’s advisers and implementers on the many policy areas relevant to Asia-Pacific affairs? The economics professor Peter Navarro, identified as a policy adviser to the Trump campaign, is the most visible Asia voice so far connected to Trump. He is author of several of the materials included below, including an essay in Foreign Policy published the day before Election Day with Alexander Gray, a Trump campaign adviser who formerly worked for Republican Congressman Randy Forbes—an outspoken critic of China’s government. Even if these two become influential, a much larger team will be needed to guide U.S. policy toward Asia. Any individual’s role cannot be known today, and almost the entire roster of GOP “usual suspects” for national security posts seems out of the question following widespread establishment opposition to Trump during the campaign.
Third, will Congress be compliant if Trump pursues some of his more drastic proposals? Here, though both houses of Congress and the White House will be controlled by the same party, the divisions within the Republican Party will be important. Would conventionally pro-trade legislators block proposed trade barriers that risk unraveling economic globalization?
Finally and most immediately, will the U.S. government today and the Trump team as it evolves reassure allies—especially Japan and South Korea—successfully enough to avoid an immediate effort in those countries to develop independent deterrents? Japan, for one, has long been viewed as a country capable of rapid nuclear break-out in the event that its security environment changed. Trump’s suggestions that allies at minimum pay more for protection, and even potentially go it alone, could trigger a domestically and internationally disruptive crisis of security in Japan that could lead to nuclear weapons development and unpredictable regional reconfigurations. Some of Trump’s and his campaign affiliates’ later statements are less alarming than their earlier versions, but it will be difficult for the U.S. government and Trump to credibly reassure allies while uncertainty reigns.
Some important changes are already all but certain. First, the substantively and symbolically important U.S.–China cooperation on global climate change is effectively over for the foreseeable future. China will likely continue to pursue more climate-friendly policies for its own reasons, but the United States will likely defect from the agreement made in Paris, potentially unraveling the fragile global accord. Second, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is dead unless a Congress led by defiant Republicans ratifies the treaty in the lame duck session. (It stood some chance of surviving in modified form in a Hillary Clinton administration.) Third, what the United States stands for among the people of the Asia-Pacific has forever changed, and not likely in a positive way.
A Trump-China Reading List
Amidst uncertainty, there is still much to digest. Below, I have compiled an initial list of links and quotes on China from Trump and his associates. This is far from exhaustive, but is instead drawn from back issues of my U.S.–China Week newsletter and other files and links. The exception is the brand new Navarro-Gray Foreign Policy piece that serves as a great starting point—so long as these two remain in the picture. Note also the significant material on China in the Republican Party platform released in July (excerpts below). If readers would be so kind as to send in materials I’ve missed to email@example.com, I will be sure to make available any fuller compilation.
- ChinaFile’s tracker for candidates’ statements on China.
- The East-West Center’s Trump tracker on Asia policy.
- Trump on trade (Jan. 7, 2016) — “I would do a tax. and the tax, let me tell you what the tax should be … the tax should be 45 percent,” Mr. Trump said.
- Pew survey of Chinese (data from April-May, 2016) — From my write-up: “The survey indicated that Chinese respondents had more confidence in Hillary Clinton “to do the right thing regarding world affairs” than they did in Donald Trump (Clinton: 37% said a lot or some confidence, versus 35% saying not too much or none at all; Trump: 22% and 40%). With a margin of error of 3.7% and without more detailed documentation, take these numbers with a grain of salt.”
- NYT, “Experts Warn of Backlash in Donald Trump’s China Trade Policies” (May 2, 2016) — “The 45 percent is a threat that if they don’t behave,” Mr. Trump said at a Republican debate in Miami last month, the United States “will tax you.” He added: “It doesn’t have to be 45; it could be less. But it has to be something because our country and our trade and our deals and most importantly our jobs are going to hell.”
- Navarro on Taiwan in The National Interest (July 12, 2016)
- Navarro in The National Interest: “The Obama-Clinton Legacy: A More Aggressive China” (July 14, 2016) — On China’s move to control the Scarborough Shoal after a U.S.-brokered deal with the Philippines: “Now here’s the truly remarkable thing: after Clinton’s State Department brokered the peace deal that China promptly broke, the United States did absolutely nothing. To Beijing, this was an open invitation, and not just to hold on to Scarborough Shoal. America’s response set in motion a chain of events that have gotten us to this point. … The emerging Chinese hegemon appears to understand the implications of this pivot math far better than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In response to America’s ‘talk loudly and carry a small pivot stick’ rhetoric, Chinese warships, paramilitary Coast Guard boats, and massive flotillas of ‘People’s War At Sea’ fishing boats have filled the void left by the Obama-Clinton failure of American power projection. … As to where we go from here, hopefully, it will be to a new president who understands that a policy of peace through strength not only requires rebuilding our military, and particularly our navy. It also means revitalizing an economy that is now incapable of generating the growth and tax revenues needed to pay for an adequate defense of America’s global interests.”
- Navarro on Taiwan in The National Interest (July 15, 2016). See also my write-up on these TNI pieces.
- Navarro: “American Can’t Dump Taiwan” (July 19, 2016) — “On the ‘don’ts’ front, the guiding principle here is that there is no need to unnecessarily poke the Panda. Ergo, American leaders should never refer to Taiwan as a ‘nation’ or ‘country’—even as they should recognize it as a ‘democracy’ and ‘political entity,’ thereby signaling Taiwan’s de facto, if not de jure, independence. …Second, American leaders should never acknowledge the ‘One China, Two Systems’ policy—nor even refer to the ‘One China’ policy again. Here, if one carefully reads documents like the Shanghai Communiqué, there is really no acknowledgement of a ‘One China,’ but rather (and only) the far more subtle acknowledgement that both China and Taiwan agree there is only one China—while having significant disagreements about what that ‘One China’ constitutes. … Third, it is critical that both Congress and especially the White House stop publicly acknowledging the need to appease China in the consideration of any arm sales to Taiwan.”
- Navarro opens ChinaFile conversation, “How Should the Republican Party Approach China Policy?” (July 2016) — “To those who say Donald Trump will start a trade war, Trump says we are already in a trade war—and it’s long past time we fought back. This undeclared trade war started in 1993 when Bill Clinton signed NAFTA and promised America 200,000 new jobs—and then we all watched as America lost over 700,000 jobs instead. And that undeclared trade war took on a whole new dimension when China began flooding our markets with its illegally subsidized exports in 2002.”
- Republican Platform (July 2016) See also my write-up. Selections from the platform:
- We cannot allow China to continue its currency manipulation, exclusion of U.S. products from government purchases, and subsidization of Chinese companies to thwart American imports. …
- Today, the worst offenses against intellectual property rights come from abroad, especially in China. We call for strong action by Congress and a new Republican president to enforce intellectual property laws against all infringers, whether foreign or domestic. …
- [Obama] threw the internet to the wolves, and they — Russia, China, Iran, and others — are ready to devour it. …
- The results of the Administration’s unilateral approach to disarmament are already clear: An emboldened China in the South China Sea …
- We urge the government of China to recognize the inevitability of change in the Kim family’s slave state and, for everyone’s safety against nuclear disaster, to hasten positive change on the Korean peninsula. The United States will continue to demand the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program with full accounting of its proliferation activities. We also pledge to counter any threats from the North Korean regime. …
- We oppose any unilateral steps by either side to alter the status quo in the Taiwan Straits on the principle that all issues regarding the island’s future must be resolved peacefully, through dialogue, and be agreeable to the people of Taiwan. If China were to violate those principles, the United States, in accord with the Taiwan Relations Act, will help Taiwan defend itself. …
- China’s behavior has negated the optimistic language of our last platform concerning our future relations with China. The liberalizing policies of recent decades have been abruptly reversed, dissent brutally crushed, religious persecution heightened, the internet crippled, a barbaric population control two-child policy of forced abortions and forced sterilizations continued, and the cult of Mao revived. Critics of the regime have been kidnapped by its agents in foreign countries. To distract the populace from its increasing economic problems and, more importantly, to expand its military might, the government asserts a preposterous claim to the entire South China Sea and continues to dredge ports and create landing fields in contested waters where none have existed before, ever nearer to U.S. territories and our allies, while building a navy far out of proportion to defensive purposes. The complacency of the Obama regime has emboldened the Chinese government and military to issue threats of intimidation throughout the South China Sea, not to mention parading their new missile, ‘the Guam Killer,’ down the main streets of Beijing, a direct shot at Guam as America’s first line of defense. Meanwhile, cultural genocide continues in Tibet and Xinjiang, the promised autonomy of Hong Kong is eroded, the currency is manipulated, our technology is stolen, and intellectual property and copyrights are mocked in an economy based on piracy. In business terms, this is not competition; it is a hostile takeover. For any American company to abet those offenses, especially governmental censorship and tracking of dissenters, is a disgrace. The return to Maoism by China’s current rulers is not reason to disengage with the Chinese people or their institutions. We welcome students, tourists, and investors, who can see for themselves our vibrant American democracy and how real democracy works. We caution, however, against academic or cultural operations under the control of the Chinese government and call upon American colleges to dissociate themselves from this increasing threat to academic freedom and honest research.
- Trump’s Republican nomination acceptance speech (July 21, 2016) — “Instead, I will make individual deals with individual countries. No longer will we enter into these massive transactions with many countries that are thousands of pages long and which no one from our country even reads or understands. We are going to enforce all trade violations against any country that cheats. This includes stopping China's outrageous theft of intellectual property, along with their illegal product dumping, and their devastating currency manipulation. They are the greatest that ever came about, they are the greatest currently manipulators ever. / Our horrible trade agreements with China, and many others, will be totally renegotiated. That includes renegotiating NAFTA to get a much better deal for America and will walk away if we don't get that kind of a deal. Our country is going to start building and making things again.”
- Trump in an economic speech in Detroit (August 8, 2016) — “At the center of my plan is trade enforcement with China. This alone could return millions of jobs into our economy. China is responsible for nearly half of our entire trade deficit. They break the rules in every way imaginable. China engages in illegal export subsidies, prohibited currency manipulation, and rampant theft of intellectual property. They also have no real environmental or labor protections, further undercutting American workers. Just enforcing intellectual property rules alone could save millions of American jobs. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, improved protection of America’s intellectual property in China would produce more than 2 million more jobs right here in the United States. Add to that the saved jobs from cracking down on currency cheating and product dumping, and we will bring trillions of dollars in new wealth and wages back to the United States.”
- Remarks on North Korean nuclear test (approx. Sept. 6, 2016, summary available here) — “What I would do very simply is say, ‘China, this is your baby,'” Trump said. “‘This is your problem. You solve the problem.’ China can solve that problem. … China has virtually total control over North Korea. But they say they don’t because they want to tweak us.”
- Campaign statement on North Korean nuclear test (Sept. 9, 2016) — “North Korea's fifth nuclear test, the fourth since Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State, is yet one more example of Hillary Clinton's catastrophic failures as Secretary of State.”
- Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on the U.S. election (Sept. 20, 2016) — “No matter who gets elected in the U.S. presidential election, I believe that China-U.S. ties will continue to grow steadily and in a positive direction.”
- Trump Campaign economic paper co-authored by Navarro (Sept. 29, 2016) — From page 21: “China is likely to pose the biggest challenge. That said, the US is still China’s biggest market, and the Chinese Communist Party runs a huge risk if it chooses to destabilize its own economy, and undermine Party control. / For example, China cannot cancel imports of American soybeans because there is not enough global excess supply of soybeans to replace the American output. If China paid a premium to divert supplies from other countries, the US would simply fill the market void created so there would be no net impact on US exports. / In terms of deals to be had, China likewise imports much of its petroleum needs so there is room to negotiate here. However, a Trump Administration will confront China’s continued high tariffs on a wide range of American products, from motorcycles to raisins, as well as China’s limits on imports such as cotton from the US. / Trump will also insist that China relax its numerous non-tariff barriers now blocking US exports across a wide range of products, including autos, agricultural commodities, fertilizers, and telecommunications equipment. Nor will a Trump Administration condone China’s continued dumping of billions of dollars of illegally subsidized goods into US markets, e.g., the massive dumping of steel. / Our view is that China’s leaders will quickly understand they are facing strength on the trade issue in Trump rather than the kind of weakness on trade that has characterized the Obama-Clinton years. Just as these Chinese leaders have been exploiting American weakness by cheating in the trade arena, they will acknowledge the strength and resoluteness of Trump and rein in their mercantilist impulses. / Ultimately, our view is that doing nothing about unfair trade practices is the most hazardous course of action – and the results of this hazard are lived out every day by millions of displaced American workers and deteriorating communities. There are many markets in the world and China is just one of them. We simply cannot trade on their onesided terms as they are too destructive to the US growth process. The same is true of other trading partners.”
- D. Quinn Mills and Navarro, “Trump's Return to Reagan” (Oct. 11, 2016) — ”[Trump’s] public statements reveal an awareness of the challenges posed to American leadership by revisionist powers like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. He seems to wish to distinguish his approach as one inclined toward a vigorous deterrence based on hard power rather than either soothing words or ideologically driven saber rattling. Trump has spoken out repeatedly against China’s aggressive behavior across the Asia-Pacific, and his emphasis on regaining American naval preeminence in the region. He has proposed building a 350-ship Navy, as advocated by a bipartisan panel of senior national security leaders. This, he argues, is required after fifteen years of intensive ground combat and a shifting mission—our navy is the smallest since World War I and events in the Pacific are making that region increasingly contentious. In this sphere, Trump has dismissed the current administration’s policy of ‘strategic patience’ with North Korea. Instead, he has proposed an investment in ballistic missile defense, which is reminiscent of Reagan’s efforts.”