Donald Trump has alarmed the Republican foreign policy establishment on a range of issues, from his call for friendlier relations with Russia to his hands-off view of the Middle East.
But when it comes to taking a harder line on China, Trump is preaching to the conservative choir.
Asia experts in both parties say that Trump’s tough-on-China stance—including his precedent-breaking phone call with Taiwan’s president on Friday—dovetails with a boiling conservative desire to reframe the U.S.-China strategic relationship after eight years of Democratic rule.
While Trump’s early overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin have drawn warning shots from senior Republicans like Senator John McCain, most national security conservatives cheered Trump’s Taiwanese call, and support his broader call for a more confrontational approach to China.
China “is an area where Trump is in line with GOP thinking, and I would argue mainstream thinking,” said one Senate foreign policy aide, talking on background because he is not a designated spokesman for his boss.
The harmony is not perfect: free trade Republicans are uncomfortable with Trump’s talk of imposing tariffs on Chinese goods. And several sources noted that Trump’s foreign policy remains unpredictable, particularly until he appoints a secretary of state.
But conservative China experts are hopeful that Trump will draw from a well-developed body of thought about challenging China’s rising power in the Asia Pacific. That includes countering new Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea; blunting its intimidation of neighbors like Japan and Vietnam; responding to rampant Chinese computer hacking; and more closely embracing Taiwan.
“There’s a body of [conservative] work that’s been established now for over 8 years about how to approach these issues,” said Daniel Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a former George W. Bush Pentagon official. “There’s certainly a lot of demand on Capitol Hill and generally among conservative foreign policy types” for a tougher line against Beijing.
Trump “seems to be swimming downstream not just with conservatives but with the broad [China]-watching community,” said Dean Cheng, a China expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, whose president, Edwin J. Feulner, is advising the Trump transition team.
Some centrist and Democratic China hands, including those inside the Obama administration, dispute Cheng’s assessment of broad consensus, saying that Trump’s Taiwan call and his frequent chest beating towards Beijing are counterproductive.
But a conservative establishment that has spent eight years pressing Obama to send stronger military and diplomatic signals to China is feeling emboldened by Trump’s Taiwan phone call, which angered China’s communist leadership, and hopeful that he will pursue a more hawkish agenda towards the country.
Analysts noted that Trump held his first foreign leader meeting with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, whose country has an antagonistic relationship with Beijing and whom conservative Asia hands say the U.S. must robustly support.
Among Trump’s early phone calls was a chat two days after the election with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, whose office said Trump had reaffirmed America’s security commitment to the Asian country, which is also wary of China’s fast-growing economy and military. That helped to soothe fears over comments made during the 2016 campaign suggesting he might reduce America’s military presence on the Korean peninsula, which has last for more than 60 years.
Those steps are in line with a hard-line GOP platform, which states that the “complacency of the Obama regime has emboldened the Chinese government and military to issue threats of intimidation throughout the South China Sea.”
In response, many conservatives back the deployment of more military assets to the Asia Pacific and setting clearer red lines against Chinese territorial claims and Beijing’s establishment of manmade islands in disputed waters.
Several conservatives echoed that view of Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, believed to be the first by a president or president-elect in more than 35 years. China considers Taiwan a rogue province and is extremely sensitive about its relations with Washington.
Conservatives groused on Monday about media reaction to Trump’s call, saying that it exaggerated the event’s significance and failed to recognize that Beijing has recently undermined other diplomatic norms, calling for a more robust U.S. response, they said.
“I think that for a long time we were intimidated by Beijing, and I think we were in part patient because we had this theory that they would gradually mellow and they would become more democratic and freer and more open. Well, that’s not happening right now,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on Fox News’s “Fox and Friends” Monday.
Three days after Trump’s call with Tsai, however, it was unclear how calculated it had been. On Sunday, vice president-elect Mike Pence downplayed the call’s significance, calling it a “courtesy” and not a statement that U.S. policy towards the 66-year China-Taiwan dispute had changed. “It was just a phone call,” added Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway. “It signals the fact that he accepted a congratulatory call.”
Those statements seemed to contradict a Washington Post report that the call had been long planned by Trump advisers, several of whom have a keen interest in the esoteric realm of Taiwan policy.
GOP sources noted that Trump’s incoming national security adviser, retired general Michael Flynn, has deep expertise in the Middle East but not Asia and likely defers to other Trump aides. They include incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, whose appointment was deemed “good news for Taiwan” by the country’s foreign minister in mid-November, according to the China Post.
As Trump begins to set China policies in other areas, however, he may encounter pushback—particularly from free traders and big business.
A Saturday statement from the American Chamber of Commerce in China about Trump’s Taiwan call, for instance, struck a cautious note.
“The president-elect has yet to take office and is still formulating positions on a wide range of issues, so we don’t place much emphasis on any particular action or comment during this process,” said James Zimmerman, the group’s chairman. “The chamber has long supported maintaining stability in the region, and we expect the new administration to respect the status quo. American business operating in Asia needs certainty and stability, and the new administration needs to get up to speed quickly on the historical tensions and complex dynamics of the region.”
And even some conservatives hopeful that Trump will push China harder warned that the U.S. can’t hope to dictate policy to a nation of one billion with the world’s second-largest economy—and that he will need Beijing’s cooperation on an issue Trump himself has signaled will be a top priority: North Korea’s nuclear program.
“There is a broad consensus in Congress and among policy experts that the Obama administration was too passive in dealing with China’s increasing coercion and aggression,” said Michael Green, a former senior director for Asia in the George W. Bush White House.
“But if you pick a fight with China on every issue, it will be very hard to get them to help with North Korea,” Green added.
Most analysts believe that China holds the key to a peaceful resolution of North Korea’s drive towards developing nuclear-tipped missiles that can strike the U.S. Confrontation could lead the Chinese to apply less pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“The key national security issue for the U.S. in Asia right now should be North Korea,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who coordinated Asia policy for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“If there is not some kind of sustained serious intervention, North Korea will develop an ICBM and the ability to strike the U.S. on this president’s watch. So this really is not the time to be courting a blow-up in the U.S.-China relationship,” she added.
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