Throughout the course of Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, he has voiced a multitude of different positions with regard to how he would approach relations with China. With this in mind, it would be useful to provide a chronology of all of Trump’s and his administration’s actions and comments on China. This timeline will be updated as new events concerning Trump and US-China relations arise.
November 10, 2015
In a policy paper posted on his campaign website (update: now unavailable), Trump stated he would declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office (update: he did not) in an effort to rectify the perceived trade imbalance of the US with China. The announcement fits into his broader condemnation of US international trade deals. Analysts have expressed concerns that this, along with Trump’s other policies towards China, could ignite a trade war. The Chinese response, at least in state media, is similar, pointing out that such a move would harm both China and the US.
On the same day, the Trump campaign team detailed its position on Chinese cybercrime, stating that he will adopt a “zero-tolerance policy” to counteract any violations. (Side note: Throughout the campaign, many commentators have noticed the different treatment allegations of Chinese cybercrime receives compared to Russian allegations. Trump, for example, questioned the alleged Russian hacking of the DNC by suggesting that China could be responsible).
January 7, 2016
In an meeting with the New York Times, Trump suggested that he would impose a 45% tariff on Chinese exports to the US. Analysts have condemned the proposal as misguided and short-sighted, and potentially even detrimental to US interests should other nations retaliate in kind, yet the announcement nonetheless complements the proposed policies announced on his campaign website (see November 10, 2015).
May 1, 2016
At a campaign rally in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Trump equated China’s current trade relationship with the US as akin to rape, stating that the US can no longer “allow China to rape our country”. Despite his inflammatory description, he stressed that he was not angry with China, but with those in the US that have allowed it to happen, and vowed to rectify the imbalance against American businesses and workers as president. The Chinese response to Trump’s comments were typically coy and subdued due to the hesitance to comment or interfere in the domestic affairs of a foreign country, with state media preferring instead to only report how other commentators interpreted it. Stronger comments have been shared, however, in more general critiques of Trump.
November 14, 2016
Following Trump’s election win on November 8, President Xi Jinping of China contacted President Trump to express his congratulations for becoming President of the United States. In his message, Xi discussed the responsibility the two countries share in “[maintaining] world peace and stability and [boosting] global development and prosperity”, and that he looks forward to working with the President to expand US-China relations “on the basis of the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”.
December 2, 2016
The President on Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen called President Trump to congratulate him on his election win. The phone call is unprecedented in US-China relations: no US President has been in direct contact with the leader on Taiwan since President Jimmy Carter switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. Doing so would tacitly serve as a rebuke of the One-China Policy, the political basis of US-China relations. In response, Beijing lodged an official protest, yet also downplayed the move, blaming Taiwan’s actions as just a petty trick. The Trump transition team defended the call, yet stressed that they are still firmly committed to the One-China policy.
December 11, 2016
In an interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace, Trump cast doubt on his earlier commitment to adhere to the One-China Policy, stating that although he understands the importance of the policy, he does not see why the US must remain bound to it without extracting concessions from China in return. He criticised China on a number of issues, including its currency policies, its actions in the South China Sea, and its stance on North Korea, refusing, too, to be “[dictated]” to by foreign nations. Chinese officials stressed the significance of the One-China Policy to the stability of the US-China relationship, whilst the state-run Global Times, with characteristic imperiousness, castigated Trump for his diplomatic naivety before becoming more circumspect about his intentions.
February 1, 2017
Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka visited the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. for a Chinese New Year celebration. Chinese state media speculated that the move could be interpreted as a means of softening Trump’s harsh stance towards China and reinvigorating the US-China relationship, whilst some Chinese social media users suggested that it was not Trump but his advisors who are the source of the animosity. Her appearance at the event with her own daughter Arabella, who herself is famous in China, could suggest that she will be taking on an unofficial role as a White House proxy at similar events in Washington.
February 8, 2017
Donald Trump toned down his rhetoric towards China in a letter to Xi Jinping in which he thanked President Xi for his good wishes following the inauguration and wished for a Happy Year of the Rooster and prosperous and constructive US-China relations. The tone of the letter stands in stark contrast to his fiery rhetoric during the election campaign and his earlier statements as President-elect. In China, the letter has been viewed with cautious optimism and as an opportunity to establish a good working relationship with the new administration.
February 9, 2017
Donald Trump reaffirms his administration’s support for the One-China Policy in his first phone call with Xi Jinping since assuming the presidency on January 20. The reaffirmation eases the tension created by Trump’s previous statements, most notably his controversial phone call with Tsai Ing-wen (see December 2, 2016 above) which he defended by questioning the utility of the One-China Policy for the US. Both the US and Chinese accounts of the call highlight the communication between the two countries in areas of mutual interest and the mutual desire to expand and deepen US-China relations.
February 10, 2017
Trump pledged close economic and security ties with Japan during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the US. The comments and the joint-statement affirming the US’s “unwavering” commitment to Japan’s security explicitly covered defence of the Japanese-administered but contested Senkaku (or Diaoyu in China) Islands. This could raise suspicions in China that Japan, not China, will become the US’s main focus in its engagement with Asia. The official Chinese response denounced the statement and any illegal actions undermining Chinese sovereignty over the islands and regional peace and stability, suggesting that US-Japan relations could negatively influence relations with China in future.
February 23, 2017
In an interview with Reuters, Trump reiterates his belief that China is manipulating its currency, stating that the Chinese are “grand champions at manipulation of currency.” Trump’s comments contradict those of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who had just said himself that the US Treasury would wait for the findings of its annual April review before deciding whether to designate China a currency manipulator or not. In a press conference the following day, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang responded to the accusation by reiterating that China does not and has no intention of depreciating the value of its currency.
February 27-28, 2017
Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi visited the US and met briefly with Donald Trump at the invitation of the US government. Interestingly, the White House’s official response was much lighter on detail than the Chinese. According to Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Yang “had an opportunity to say hi to the President before he left”, which contrasts with the lengthier and more detailed official Chinese account, although it must be said that this account did not go beyond the usual platitudes.
The following day, Yang met with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, where they “discussed the importance of improving and maintaining a mutually beneficial economic relationship…[as well as] areas of mutual concern, including North Korea’s nuclear programs”. Though this time the accounts were similar in depth (although unlike the US version, the Chinese account included a photo of Yang Tillerson), a notable omission from the Chinese version was a reference to talks on North Korea, which the American account alluded to.
Trump has so far not commented on Yang Jiechi’s visit to the US.
March 13, 2017
Reports have surfaced in US media that a meeting between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump is being tentatively planned for next month at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. The exact agenda of the meeting will likely be finalized during Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to Beijing. So far, neither the White House nor the Chinese Foreign Ministry willing to confirm an exact date for the meeting, and Chinese and US media sources have so far been circumspect on what the meeting could entail, suggesting only that the likely location – Mar-a-Lago – would allow for a less formal yet potentially more productive meeting to occur.
March 15-19, 2017
Rex Tillerson made his first trip to Asia as Secretary of State with visits to Japan, South Korea and China. According to a US State Department official, the purpose of his trip was to “allow the Secretary to continue to engage allies and partners on not only a range of bilateral issues, but also importantly to discuss and coordinate strategy to address the advancing nuclear and missile threat from North Korea”.
During the trip, Tillerson issued the starkest warning yet to North Korea in remarks given in South Korea, saying that “the policy of strategic deterrence has ended”, and that “all options are on the table”, including a military option as an appropriate response. The official Chinese response was muted, with spokesperson Hua Chunying simply restating China’s own “suspension-for-suspension proposal and the parallel-track approach” on resolving the instability on the Korean Peninsula, a proposal that the Secretary dismissed as not viable at the moment given the conditions. President Trump, for his part, tweeted that North Korea has been “behaving very badly” and that “China has done little to help”.
In contrast to his own and Trump’s earlier remarks, Secretary Tillerson presented a conciliatory tone in his meetings with several high-level Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping. The official US statement of the meeting with Xi was light on detail, noting areas of differences and future cooperation were discussed along with the anticipated meeting between Xi and Trump. US media has suggested that in spite of the conciliatory language in public, sterner exchanges would have been held privately, especially in regard to differences over how to manage the issue of the Korean Peninsula. As of March 20, 2017, no official government comment on the meeting has been issued. However, state-run media outlet Global Times expressing cautious optimism over the event, particularly over Tillerson’s use of the common Chinese phrases of “mutual respect” and “win-win cooperation”.
As well as meeting with President Xi, similarly positive meetings were held with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councillor Yang Jiechi, with the former holding an “in-depth discussion” on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, and the latter emphasising greater cooperation and dialogue in diplomatic, trade and military ties. Understandably, these meetings have received less coverage and attention from both official and unofficial news sources than the more high-profile meeting the President Xi Jinping.