Event Summary: ‘US-China Policy in the Era of Trump’


By Rob Clark

On the 13th September 2017, the Henry Jackson Society was delighted to host Michael Pillsbury, Senior Fellow and Director for Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute, to deliver his talk; ‘US – China Policy in the Era of Trump’, chaired by  James Rogers, the Director of the Global Britain Program here at the Henry Jackson Society. Pillsbury is a distinguished defence policy adviser, former high-ranking government official, and author of numerous books and reports on China.

After a courteous introduction by James, an interesting, historically relevant anecdote was then told by Pillsbury. It was the classic narrative of how Nixon and Kissinger, then President of the US and his National Security Adviser, later Secretary of State respectively, managed to open up China to the world. Rapprochement in 1972 ensured. However, Pillsbury’s account, backed up by Chinese archival evidence which he managed to obtain for an upcoming publication, argues that it was in fact China who first sought dialogue with the US, back in 1969. In all, five attempts by the Chinese were made to reach out to the west, and all five fell on deaf ears. Why is this story relevant today? The Chinese are certainly one for history, Pillsbury suggests, and if President Trump wishes to improve relations with Beijing then remembering history may well serve the President well with some of the urgent issues confronting the world today.

First and foremost is not only the threat of a nuclear North Korea, but the manner in which Kim Jong-Un seems to regularly flaunt internationally accepted norms and values regarding nuclear proliferation. While the rest of the world’s media and press looked on in disbelief at President Trump’s strongly toned remarks concerning the potential for military action against Pyongyang this week at the United Nations General Assembly, Pillsbury remarked that actually this was nothing new for a US President, and was simply a of continuation of American policy for the past 25 years. What was new, however, was that President Trump was reaching out to the rest of the international community in assisting resolving this by means of peaceful diplomacy. This was a definite nod towards Beijing picking up more of the diplomatic slack in order to reign in its nuclear neighbor; a point well brought out during Pillsbury’s talk.

Offering up something of a model by which one may choose to base a policy towards China on, Pillsbury explained four positions policy makers in the US take regarding US-Chinese relations. These four positions are exemplified by two matrices. The first is the Collapse – Growth matrix, incorporating the first two policy positions. The view that China cannot maintain its current growth is heavily supported in the US; credit is 200% of GDP, which itself has slowed from nearly 15% per annum ten years ago to around 6% today; not to mention the systemic problems major Chinese urban areas have with both pollution and water security. That these issues are the case some argue that a policy of reigning in Chinese investment is prudent. The second policy position on the first matrix is one of supporting what is still exceedingly quick growth rates for the Chinese economy. This is a position supported by Pillsbury, and one which is at odds with Trump.

The second matrix Pillsbury describes is the Cooperation – Hostility model. The hostility side of the spectrum takes intellectual credit from Marx, who argued that causes of war are a result different growth rates in the international economy. Arguing that cooperation is more beneficial than hostility, supporters of increased cooperation with China point to the rise of China and how it can in fact lead to a new world order; a ‘G2’, consisting of just China and the US being the two global hegemons. Elaborating this model further, Pillsbury explained how some, especially China itself, counter-propose this idea, by pointing to the fact that there is no need to form a new bi-polar international system; that China just has to wait a while longer until it overtakes the US and becomes the global hegemon. This is the crux of Pillsbury’s talk, and relates succinctly to the title of his book; 100 Year Marathon, detailing the Chinese accent during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Being number two now since the end of the Cold War, China only has to bide its time, according to Pillsbury and other leading experts, until it will be number one, and a new world order of ‘G1’ will be in effect.


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