One Scholar On Why The U.S.-China Relationship Is 'Too Important To Fail'

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A man reads a newspaper with the headline of "U.S. President-elect Donald Trump delivers a mighty shock to America" at a news stand in Beijing on Nov. 10, 2016. (Andy Wong/AP)
A man reads a newspaper with the headline of "U.S. President-elect Donald Trump delivers a mighty shock to America" at a news stand in Beijing on Nov. 10, 2016. (Andy Wong/AP)

The U.S. and China have a complex, longstanding relationship on issues like trade, territory and security. But President Trump has raised uncertainty about the future of that relationship with trade war threats and his call to the president of Taiwan.

Here & Now's Eric Westervelt (@Ericnpr) talks with John Pomfret (@jepomfret), senior scholar at the Fulbright Program and editor of the Outlook section of the Washington Post, about the U.S.-China relationship under Trump. Pomfret is also author of the book "The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present."

Interview Highlights

On why the relationship between the U.S. and China is “too important to fail”

"Well, for one, the trading relationship is absolutely enormous. China has, off and on, been our biggest trading partner over the course of the last five years. And China and American companies are basically integrated in the global supply chain for all things from Apple iPhones to Dell computers to a variety of products to airplanes, et cetera. And so, just from the trading aspect, it's a hugely important relationship. And then you look at climate change — the two countries are working very closely together, at least they were, trying to deal with climate change. And then also on security issues. I mean, probably the most dangerous place in the world right now would be considered North Korea, and how and if the United States and China can work together to tamp down that place as a threat, it would be enormously consequential, not just for America and China but for all of northeast Asia, as well. ...And counterterrorism as well. Both countries clearly have a shared interest in tamping down terrorism.”

On what Beijing currently thinks of Trump

"So, during the campaign, the Chinese seemed to be very supportive of Trump, partially because they really didn't like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at all. They had a sense that Trump would be transactional in his relationship with China, that they could do business with a businessman. But then, on the One China issue, he began to question whether the United States had to continue its policy of basically acknowledging that China wants Taiwan back, but not acknowledging that Taiwan really belongs to China. And so in taking the phone call from the President Tsai Ing-wen, he basically drew, from the Chinese perspective, he was questioning sort of the whole basis of the relationship between the United States and China over the last almost five decades. And now that he's walked that back, it seems that, to a certain extent, folks in Beijing area little more calm about the relationship, but still they look at Trump as a highly unpredictable potential partner with China. They don't know what he's going to do next. And actually, from Trump's perspective, he seems to be doing that a bit on purpose. But we're still really waiting for the Trump administration to tell us what its China policy is. Right now, we're at this kind of moment where — because Trump had threatened, effectively, a trade war with China. He threatened to slap 45 percent tariffs on all Chinese goods, but it does now seem he doesn't seem to be wanting to do that anymore. So exactly how he's going to approach China I think still is a huge open question, both for Americans who are interested in the subject, but also for the Chinese.”

"...Beijing is clearly unnerved. Now that he walked back the One China policy was portrayed in some circles in the United States as sort of a sign of his weakness. But I think that was sort of, from my perspective, it was the basis from which the relationship can now proceed, because if you don't accept the 'One China' policy — which is actually not that onerous for the United States to accept — the Chinese aren't going to do business with you at all. And they also are in position to do a lot of troubling things to the United States, or to America's potential competitors around the world. For example, they could not carry out UN sanctions on North Korea, or they could break sanctions with Iran, or they could resume missile sales to Syria and to Iran. So, the Chinese have a potential of misbehaving, and American administrations have clearly learned lessons about that.”

"I think we're witnessing very publicly, and sometimes embarrassingly, the education of Donald Trump on China."

John Pomfret

On what the "One China" policy is

"So from the U.S. perspective, saying that they agreed to the 'One China' policy means basically that the United States acknowledges that China wants Taiwan back. But the United States does not acknowledge that Taiwan actually belongs to the People's Republic of China. That's not the U.S. policy. Basically, we just sort of acknowledge that ‘Yah, you want that back, we get it.’ But that's it. So for that perspective, it's not that onerous for American presidents to embrace that policy."

On whether there will be a trade war with China

"Every president since Richard Nixon has run on a platform of getting tough with China, except for Obama. So Carter did it, Clinton did it, George W. Bush did it. And so, I think Trump falls into that category of saying, ‘I’m going to be tough on China.’ But once he enters office, the reality of this massively complex, very important relationship sets in. And the China trade relationship — if you, for example, begin to sanction all these Chinese imports to the United States, you definitely harm China, but you also harm hugely western companies all over the world, including American companies. I mean, 50 percent of Chinese exports to the United States are made by foreign companies in China. And of those exports, if it's a high-tech export, it's 70 percent. And so, you are definitely hurting Chinese, but you're also hurting western companies and American companies, as well. And so slapping a broad tariff just on Chinese products, I don't think is going to go. And you clearly see the Trump administration pivoting away from that and embracing more broadly a border tax on all imports to the United States, but we don't even know if that's going to happen. Again, because the potential economic fallout could be so significant.”

"I think we're witnessing very publicly, and sometimes embarrassingly, the education of Donald Trump on China. And you see people around him pushing him in potentially a more rational direction, towards dealing with China. But I also have to acknowledge that I think he embraced a central truth about our relationship with China. And it's that for the last 10 years, even perhaps more, it's been unbalanced, and that the Chinese have really played the United States. And I think Trump identifying that is something we have to give him credit for. The question is what time of strategy is he going to come up with that might help the United States right the balance of the relationship, and I think that's the huge challenge.”

On North Korea

"So, it's clear that, in Chinese society, for example, everybody basically thinks North Korea is a joke, a very scary joke, but a joke. I mean, people travel to North Korea from China to kind of look at it as like, ‘This is what we were like, this is what China was like when it was poor and really communist.’ They talk about Kim Jong Un — they call him Jin Sanpang — sort of, that means, ‘Kim No. 3 Fatty.’ So, on a societal level, they look down their noses at the North Koreans. But from a geopolitical standpoint, they kind of look at North Korea as their East Germany, and they think, ‘If it collapses, well, we're going to be next,’ or ‘we could be next.’ You know, you have the peninsula united under a pro-American South Korean government, what do you with the 30,000 American troops there, et cetera. So it's a cascading series of bad potential events should that regime collapse. So they support it.

“And now, though, they're clearly unhappy with Kim Jong Un's continued missile test and nuclear tests, and they want that to stop. At the same time, they're not willing to risk the collapse of the regime, so they're stuck, in a way. And so, this latest coal import ban is clearly designed to cut into the foreign exchange earnings of the North Korean regime in order to slow down, perhaps, their military programs. But we have to see whether, one, it's actually carried out, and two, if the other shoe is going to drop which would mean squeezing North Korean even more. And one of the areas they could do would be cutting China's oil exports to North Korea. And there are other areas as well, in terms of blocking a whole array of Chinese companies which have been helping North Korea break the sanctions for years. And so, this is a good first step, but there's a lot more that China can do. China says it has no influence over North Korea, and that's just not true. It really controls the access, the trade access, and the money flows into North Korea, as well.”

On the assassination of Kim Jong Un's half brother in Malaysia

"So, it's clear that Kim Jong Un viewed his brother, half brother, as a potential political rival. And so, being in a political dynasty, he just made the decision to rub him out. And he got him in a place where he was less protected than if he was in Macau or in China, because there the Chinese were giving him bodyguards.”

This article was originally published on February 21, 2017.

This segment aired on February 21, 2017.



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