China Policy Under Trump

November 24, 2016

Tags: China policy, TPP, China trade


There is no doubt that the most important bilateral relationship in American foreign policy is the relationship with China. This is why I welcomed the recent NPR interview with Michael Pillsbury, a China hand and present member of the Trump transition team.

My father was a brilliant trial lawyer who could change tactics in the middle of a trial, depending on the testimony of the witness. A favorite quote of his was, "You have to speak to people in a language that they understand."

This sounds obvious, but actually it is a study in communications strategy. The United States has been very poor in its communications strategy with China for the past eight years and I include the foreign policy team of the present administration and the past two secretaries of state. All of them have a tin ear when it comes to understanding nuance. They fall into the Chinese category of Western barbarians.

I shall not mention all of the specific issues that called for America to weigh in, but the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong comes to mind. The young were in the streets asking for the democracy promised at the handover of Hong Kong from Britain.

Mr. Pillsbury is the author of the perceptive book "The Hundred Year Marathon." He is also a speaker of Chinese and a scholar of Chinese history. His approach is that of a military man. He served in the Reagan and Bush administrations. By this I mean that like military men the world over, Mr. Pillsbury is a strategic thinker. This is exactly what is needed in dealing with China, for the Chinese have been brilliant strategic thinkers for the past two thousand years.

A word about Chinese history. They were the pre-eminent civilization in the world for centuries until the rise of the West. They failed to come to terms with Western science and technology. They screwed up modernization royally, because of their belief in their own culture. They turned inward at a time when the West came to dominate the international order.

The Chinese have made up for lost time in the past three decades. They are moving onto the global scene. As Mr. Pillsbury says, China is sometimes a friend and sometimes a rival.


Mr. Pillsbury understands the Chinese mentality. Mr. Pillsbury says that when Trump enunciates the "America First" policy that has garnered so much press attention, the Chinese understand where he is coming from, because they believe in China first.

Mr. Pillsbury says that if we are going to do away with the TPP, which our allies, the Japanese have already ratified, that we must replace it with something else or the Chinese will.

His recent interview with NPR is illuminating. I hope that NPR invites him back. His analysis is thoughtful and balanced. He is not pushing a left or a right agenda. He is analyzing, giving context and telling it like it is.

I previously interviewed Mr. Pillsbury on the subject of his book, "The Hundred Year Marathon" for my own new book, "The Lamborghini and the Laogai: The Two Faces of China's Rise." My book is forthcoming and is co-authored with Robert Thurman, the pre-eminent scholar of Tibetan Buddhism in the United States.