A Trump-China Reading List, and Unanswered Questions for his Asia Policy

By Graham Webster / November 9, 2016 / Lawfareblog.com

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 Policypiece 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 lawfare@gwbstr.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.” Read more…



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