US participation in China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) plan and reciprocity on bilateral trade issues are made more likely by the emergence of Matthew Pottinger and Terry Branstad as key players in formulating the Donald Trump administration’s policy toward Beijing, says noted China hand Dennis Wilder.
Pottinger headed the US delegation at China’s Belt and Road summit in mid-May. He is a special assistant to the president and the National Security Council’s senior director for East Asia. Pottinger’s presence at the Beijing conference signaled for the first time that Washington recognizes OBOR’s importance as a trans-regional economic initiative.
The US Senate, in another move, approved ex-Iowa governor Terry Branstad as the US ambassador to China on May 22.
Wilder was a special assistant to the president and senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council under George W Bush. He also worked as a senior China military analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency and is currently a professor in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
He spoke with Asia Times recently about how Pottinger and Branstad will help shape Sino-US relations.
How significant was the Trump administration’s decision to send Matthew Pottinger as an observer to May’s OBOR summit in Beijing?
Wilder: It’s very significant. Pottinger is really the top China expert in this administration.
Does US attendance at the summit signal an interest in participating in OBOR?
Wilder: I think the administration is extremely interested in OBOR as long as certain international practices are used by the Chinese. Some issues are: Is there transparency in the process of selecting the firms involved? Is there free and fair competition for those competitive bids? Are there financing systems for the nations involved? Are the terms not onerous and are they repayable?
What special abilities does Pottinger bring to the job?
Wilder: I was at a meeting with him at the White House recently with the chancellor of China’s Tsinghua University. Pottinger did the entire meeting in Chinese. He studied in Beijing, he studied in Taiwan and he continues to study the language.
So this is a man with deep expertise on China. He was also a journalist in China for The Wall Street Journal. He has a deep cultural interest in the country. As a matter of fact, he told the chancellor he was reading one of the books (in Chinese) on the Warring States period right now.
Would the possibility of US companies participating in OBOR pique the White House’s interest in participation?
Wilder: Absolutely – and we know many US companies like General Electric are very interested in being part of OBOR. We have some very good infrastructure companies in the US. Obviously for Trump, the creation of jobs for US citizens and corporations is a high priority. We are going to see those companies aggressively look for opportunities. I think the administration is going to support them in that – as Matt Pottinger mentioned at this recent White House meeting.
Was Pottinger a good choice for the NSC China spot?
Wilder: From a China background perspective, Pottinger is an excellent choice. His learning curve will be on how the American bureaucracy affects policy – because he’s never served at this level of the US government. He will have to begin to understand how a very large and complex US foreign-policy and national-security machine works. But as I’ve indicated, he’s a very bright guy and I think he’ll master the account. I think we are fortunate to have a person of his caliber in that job.
Pottinger is an ex-military man and journalist with a relatively hard line on China. Is this bad for Sino-US relations?
Wilder: I worked in the Bush administration – an administration that some would consider a hardline administration toward China. What I always found with the Chinese is that they appreciated the candor that so-called hardliners bring to the US-China dialogue.
How effective will Terry Branstad be now that he’s officially US ambassador to China?
Wilder: Before Terry Branstad was selected, one of my recommendations to any administration was that they pick someone to be China ambassador who has a personal relationship with the US president.
That’s because I watched Clark Randt be extremely effective for eight years in Beijing under president Bush as the US ambassador. Randt was effective because he had been a college mate of the president at Yale. They were old, old friends. The thing that an old friend can do that most ambassadors cannot do is pick up the phone and talk candidly to the president of the United States.
The Chinese will know when Terry Branstad speaks, he speaks for the president. That’s very important …
What is Branstad’s personal relationship with Trump?
Wilder: All you have to know is that Branstad’s son has joined the White House as a liaison to the Commerce Department. Branstad’s son was the campaign manager for Trump in Iowa. Trump won Iowa by 9 points. Trump is already saying that he will go out to Iowa for Terry Branstad in mid-June.
All these things indicate that he was the first US ambassador that Trump confided in. After the election was over, he asked Branstad if he would be interested in the China job. This all bodes very well for US-China relations and for having a good conduit in Beijing.
Will Branstad’s personal ties with Xi Jinping also be an advantage?
Wilder: Terry Branstad has known President Xi since 1985. I think personal ties in foreign policy are underrated by some. Over and over again, I’ve seen how individuals and the personal ties between leaders make a huge difference in international understanding. This kind of personal diplomacy was a hallmark of the Bushes, and I think it will be a hallmark of Trump as well.
What special abilities does Branstad bring to the job?
Wilder: One of the abilities Branstad has that’s very important to this administration is that he’s been a great salesman for the state of Iowa. He’s helped Iowa farmers gain huge agricultural markets in China. He’s the man who knows how to make a trade deal, he knows how to promote American trade and business interests in China. That will be a key part of what he brings to the job.
What will be Branstad’s top challenges as US ambassador to China?
Wilder: No 1 on the list – and it’s not hard to see – is North Korea. The Chinese have been helpful on North Korea. There hasn’t been a sixth nuclear test. I give the Chinese some credit for having stopped the North Koreans from testing both an ICBM and a nuclear weapon. So I think the Chinese are putting some pressure on. But more pressure is needed.
What we need from the Chinese now and what Terry Branstad must do is get increased pressure on the North, making it clear to the North that it must make the strategic decision to denuclearize.
The second challenge for Branstad is US jobs. He needs to promote American interests, American companies. He needs to look to open up Chinese markets that have been closed. The Chinese know what those market areas are – such as IT, finance, services. US markets have been much more open to foreign direct investment from China than many areas of their economy have been to the US.
What is Donald Trump’s personal impact on China relations?
Wilder: Because the Trump family works the way it does, the Chinese are actually very comfortable with that. The Trumps are almost like a Chinese family in many ways – with a son-in-law in the business and the children in key roles for the father.