Crafting China Policy Could Get Sticky After Trump's Campaign Comments During the campaign, Donald Trump took an aggressive stance toward China. Steve Inskeep talks to Mike Pillsbury, an adviser to the Trump transition team, about what Trump's policy might be.

Crafting China Policy Could Get Sticky After Trump's Campaign Comments

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This story begins with the resonance of a phrase - America first. Donald Trump picked up that phrase for his presidential campaign. His supporters say it reflects his nationalist views. His critics hear echoes of isolationists and German sympathizers, who used the phrase before World War II. It turns out the very same phrase takes on yet another meaning when it's heard in China. China specialist Mike Pillsbury says the nationalist theme resonates for many Chinese.

MIKE PILLSBURY: When they hear him say I want America first, they recognize that immediately because they want China first. As a parallel interpretation of the need for growth, the idea of make America great again, that is almost a literal translation for President Xi Jinping's main slogan, - fuxing zhi lu. Fuxing means to return to your original greatness. So when they hear President-elect Trump say Make America Great Again, they immediately sort of resonate with that. That's China's strategy, too.

INSKEEP: Mike Pillsbury, an official in the Reagan and Bush administration who's now an author, has been advising Trump's transition team. Trump has accused China of currency manipulation and has pledged to slap tariffs on Chinese goods if trade conditions do not improve. In the past, he called climate change a hoax created by the Chinese. Now comes the challenge of crafting a China policy. So I want to get a sense of how you believe Donald Trump views China, really. Is China a rival, a threat, a trading partner, a potential friend? What are they?

PILLSBURY: Well, probably all of the above. I think Mr. Trump has personal experience with China. He's been involved for 10 years in a brand case in China. And quite recently, they announced in China that he has won. And if no one files an objection within 90 days, the Trump brand will be legitimate throughout China. So this shows the quality of personal involvement, knowledge of the Chinese legal system. I think Mr. Trump will be the first president...

INSKEEP: I wonder if being elected president of the United States improves your chances of winning a court case in China.

PILLSBURY: (Laughter). Well, now, you shouldn't be accusing the Chinese government of corruption and favoritism.

INSKEEP: Well, I wouldn't accuse. I'm just raising the question, given the timing. But go on, please.

PILLSBURY: I think the decision was reached after he was elected president, yes. But my point here is that Mr. Trump, unlike, I think, all other presidents, has business experience with China. They don't see him as an enemy. They see him as preferable to Hillary Clinton. They saw Hillary Clinton as kind of a nag on human rights. And they don't know Mr. Trump's strategy, and I don't think he's going to reveal it until it's ready.

INSKEEP: What's the evidence, if any, for this claim that Trump made in a 2012 tweet that climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese to put U.S. manufacturing at a disadvantage?

PILLSBURY: I don't know.

INSKEEP: Is it that there's not any evidence?

PILLSBURY: I don't have any idea why he said that. Climate change, obviously, is one of the most important areas of cooperation we have with the Chinese. We're the two biggest polluters in the world. So if I were writing a list of things to think about for China for the next president, I would make a list of areas of conflict, friction, tough negotiations. I would also make an area of cooperation, and climate change obviously would be on the area of cooperation.

INSKEEP: Is it going to be possible to persuade the Chinese to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions if, at the same time, the United States is questioning climate science and rolling back its own efforts against climate change?

PILLSBURY: Well, the rise of nationalism in China includes climate change, where they see European Union and the United States as putting unfair pressure on China to cut back on pollution as part of a sort of conspiracy plot to hold down the Chinese growth rate. And they said...

INSKEEP: They think it's a conspiracy, too, against them, is what you're saying.

PILLSBURY: Yes, and they made this clear to President Obama in Copenhagen in 2009. But that, I think, still stands in China - the notion that this is part of an American containment strategy to slow us down.

INSKEEP: So that's going to be a challenge for the new president.

PILLSBURY: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: If he wants to take it on.

PILLSBURY: It's not going to be - it hasn't been easy...

INSKEEP: If he wants to take it on.

PILLSBURY: Any new president coming in faces the complexity of China strategy.

INSKEEP: So should the United States be trying to restrain or contain China?

PILLSBURY: Not in the old-fashioned sense, but to be - I think what I'm advising any president is we need to be more competitive with China, taking China more seriously as a peer or a near-peer.

INSKEEP: So let me ask you - if you feel that the United States needs to be more competitive with China, how do you bind other Pacific nations to the United States instead of to China? And I ask that because the Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiated by President Obama's administration, was designed to do that. And Trump is against that, considers it a terrible deal, says he's going to tear it up.

PILLSBURY: Well, not just President-elect Trump. There's opposition in the Congress. There's opposition...

INSKEEP: Hillary Clinton was opposed to it, sure.

PILLSBURY: There's opposition by the AFL-CIO.

INSKEEP: But this was the purpose - was to - was to get these allies on board with the United States on a more permanent basis.

PILLSBURY: Well, that's right. And the worst thing of all is that the Japanese went ahead ratified the agreement. And now it appears that what they ratified is not going to be implemented by the Americans.

INSKEEP: So how do you keep U.S. allies as U.S. allies, if not through that?

PILLSBURY: Well, it's - in my personal view - and I really can't represent Mr. Trump or his team - this is certainly part of the need for a well-crafted, holistic China strategy. Obama said, quite correctly, I think, if we don't write the rules, China will. And just in the past week, the Chinese have announced they are going to try to have a regional trade framework that they negotiate and they lead.

INSKEEP: They're going to take over the Trans-Pacific Partnership space.

PILLSBURY: In some sense, yes. And they've been quite explicit about it.

INSKEEP: I think I hear you saying something needs to replace the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

PILLSBURY: Well, we certainly need to have a trade framework in Asia. I think...

INSKEEP: Otherwise we leave it to the Chinese.

PILLSBURY: Well, we can take a look at the Chinese approach. But given their record of making China great again as their main strategic goal, I don't think all aspects of the Chinese proposal we want to agree to.

INSKEEP: Is there a danger of war with China.

PILLSBURY: Yes - accidental war.

INSKEEP: Could happen at any time because of these conflicts over the South China Sea and so forth.

PILLSBURY: I think if you bring in pretty much any China expert, from the far left to the far right, there is some chance of accidental war with China, and they would probably all tell you that reducing misperceptions, reducing mistrust, this conspiracy theory on both sides, this is a problem. My fourth book on China might be called "Avoiding War With China."

INSKEEP: Mike Pillsbury, thanks for coming by.

PILLSBURY: So I'm invited back?

INSKEEP: Yeah, sure. We'll bring you back to learn more.

PILLSBURY: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: He's a former Reagan and Bush administration official and specializes on China.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.