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.
May 6, 2017
At events in China over the weekend, the Kushner family business courted wealthy Chinese investors by citing the EB-5 visa program, wherein foreign investors can become permanent US residents if they invest at least $500,000 in projects that create jobs for US citizens. Though itself contentious, this program on its own was not noteworthy. Controversially, however, were the implicit and explicit references made to Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor. Even though Kushner has removed himself from the daily operations of the business, the link, it seems, was not lost on attendees or ethics watchdogs, who were intrigued and critical of the connection, respectively.
The White House, via Press Secretary Sean Spicer, emphasised that Jared has done everything to comply with ethics rules. On the EB-5 visa program, which was extended, Spicer reiterated that Jared no longer had any affiliation with his family’s company, but did not address the possibility of a potential conflict of interest.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang declined to comment on the events because he was unaware of them. Chinese state media outlet Global Times was similarly dismissive of the reference, stating it would not influence Chinese government relations in any way. For private Chinese investors, however, it suggested caution when investing and noted that if the project was tied to the President’s family, it could be a selling point.
April 24, 2017
President Trump and Xi talked over the phone less than two weeks since their last call (see April 12) and less than a month since they met at Mar-a-Lago in Florida (see April 6-7). The topics of discussion appear to be almost identical to those broached during their previous phone call. The level of detail, too, is similar. The US side suggested that the sole topic of discussion was the threat posed by North Korea’s continued belligerence, which, though still light on detail, was an improvement on the scope of the previous phone call’s readout. Significantly longer, the Chinese account (see here for the original Chinese Foreign Ministry press release, and here for an English language summary from Xinhua) of the discussion described this and other topics, including their recent meeting at Mar-a-Lago, the need to finalise preparations for Trump’s travel to China, preparation for the US-China Comprehensive Dialogue, and to continue to deepen cooperation on a range of areas. In reporting and commentating on the call, both Chinese (see here too) and US (and here too) media highlighted the discussion on the North Korean issue.
April 14, 2017
In a report dated April 14, 2017, the US Department of Treasury concluded that China has not been manipulating its currency, but that it has been placed on a Monitoring List of those countries that satisfy two of the three requirements for designating a country as such. Trump pre-empted this conclusion in an interview with the Wall Street Journal published on April 12, 2017. This contrasts with his earlier assertions that he would label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office (see also: November 10, 2015), and with his general anti-China rhetoric during his campaign. On Twitter, he defended his administration’s decision, rhetorically questioning why he would call China a currency manipulator “when they are working with us on the North Korean problem”. Nonetheless, he did qualify his tweet by exclaiming that “we [the US] will see what happens”, leaving open the possibility that this decision will change in future. In a press conference, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang’s reaction to this decision was to restate China’s position on the RMB exchange rate, and then to mention that Presidents Xi and Trump “spent quite some time discussing trade relations and reached important consensus” during their meeting at Mar-a-Lago, Florida. State media outlet Global Times was more forthcoming in a reaction, “[welcoming]” the decision in an editorial.
February 23, 2017
November 10, 2017
April 12, 2017
Donald Trump held talks over the phone with Xi Jinping less than a week after the two met in Florida (see April 6-7). The official US and Chinese readouts of the talks vary significantly in their content. The US account described the call as a “follow up” to their meeting the previous week and as “very productive”, but did not elaborate further. Indeed, even Trump’s Twitter summary offered more detail, stating that they discussed “the menace of North Korea”. In contrast, the Chinese account was much more effusive. According to the Chinese account, the two leaders reviewed their recent meeting in Florida and noted that they had developed “sound working relationships”. In addition, the two heads of state discussed the implementation of their proposed 100-day economic plan through the four-track comprehensive dialogue, the need to expand bilateral exchange and cooperation in a variety of fields, and that they should work together to address global challenges and other issues of common concern. The pair “exchanged views” on the situation on the Korean Peninsula, and discussed the war in Syria.
The phone call follows the US decision to redirect an aircraft carrier to waters off the Korean Peninsula, prompting a characteristically belligerent rebuke from North Korea (Update: this, apparently, was false. The New York Times reports that a breakdown of communication lead to the impression that a US aircraft carrier and other ships were heading north when in fact it was heading east as planned. As of April 18, 2017, it is indeed heading north to the Western Pacific). During the phone call, Xi stressed for a peaceful resolution to the dispute, whilst Trump took to Twitter to state that “North Korea is looking for trouble…we [the US] will solve the problem without them [the Chinese]!”. Chinese state media outlet Global Times, in a surprisingly subdued editorial, called for restraint from both North Korea and the US and noted the increasing Chinese support for tougher sanctions on the North Korean regime, perhaps indicative of the Chinese government’s growing impatience with its neighbour’s nuclear posturing. In a similar fashion, an editorial in the New York Times advised Trump to tone down his brash rhetoric and develop a “coherent strategy” for managing the Korean Peninsula situation.
April 6-7, 2017
Presidents Xi and Trump met at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, marking Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with the Chinese leader. The event was notable for the lack of tension expressed; many of the envisaged points of contention (US-China trade and North Korea) did not appear to dampen the talks. In fact, the meeting was overshadowed by the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Following remarks given by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the US-China summit, all follow-up questions focused on the events in Syria.
Trump described the Chinese delegation as “very interesting to be with”, adding that the relationship between himself and Xi was “outstanding”, and that “tremendous progress” has been made in the US-China relationship. The Chinese English language accounts of the summit were less effusive but no less specific. In a press conference, Chinese foreign military spokesperson Hua Chunying provided general descriptions of what occurred including that “[both] leaders agreed to deepen practical cooperation in trade and investment and properly handle trade friction for win-win results”.
Both the Chinese and US English accounts made reference (the US more so than the Chinese) to the expansion of the US-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue to the US-China Comprehensive Dialogue. This expanded initiative will now include four tracks with the addition of a law enforcement & cybersecurity track and a social & cultural track. In addition, US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross mentioned that both sides agreed to develop a “100-day plan” to improve US-China trade relations. Although stressing that this plan is still being developed, “the objective is to increase our exports to China and to reduce the trade deficit that we have with them”.
Beyond trade, other subjects broached included positions on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, regional and maritime security, and law enforcement cooperation. The official Chinese language foreign ministry account, in addition to the aforementioned topics, mentions people-to-people exchanges and China’s development path as areas of conversation. Trump also accepted an invitation to visit China later in 2017, although Secretary Tillerson cautioned that the dates were yet to be finalised.
Update: Airing on April 12, 2017, President Trump gave an interview (watch the interview here or read the transcript here) with Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo in which he discussed, amongst other things, his meeting with President Xi at Mar-a-Lago. Interspersed between comments about “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you have ever seen”, Trump described the strong rapport that he had developed with the Chinese leader, and how in discussions concerning North Korea, Xi had explained the complex history of Sino-DPRK relations. Trump, for his part, stressed that China had “tremendous power” over North Korea because of the heavy reliance of the DPRK regime on Chinese trade, and raised the prospect of more favourable trade relations with China should they assist in resolving the situation on the Korean Peninsula (which he sees as beginning to happen). On explaining to the Chinese President the US missile response to the Syrian chemical weapons attack, Trump stated that Xi “was OK with it” because of who was targeted and how. This position was tacitly reiterated when China abstained on a resolution in the UN Security Council, a significant change from its previous positions on Syria resolutions, all of which it vetoed.
March 30, 2017
March 13, 2017
March 30, 2017
In a brief announcement, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang confirmed that President Xi Jinping will be meeting with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago on April 6-7 after a state visit to Finland. Chinese state media outlet Global Times welcomed the news, yet cautioned against expecting all areas of difference to be resolved. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer corroborated this information in his daily press briefing, adding that “[the] President looks forward to meeting with President Xi and exchanging views on each other’s respective priorities and [charting] a way forward on a bilateral relationship between [the] two nations. They will discuss the issues of mutual concern, including North Korea, trade, and regional security”.
April 6-7, 2017
March 13, 2017
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.
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 [update: this has since been confirmed]. 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.
April 6-7, 2017
March 30, 2017
March 7, 2017
US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur L Ross announced that Chinese telecommunications company ZTE had agreed to pay fines of up to nearly US$1.2 billion for flouting US export control laws. The fines were levied in response to ZTE’s violation of US trade sanctions for shipping telecommunications equipment originating from the US to Iran and North Korea. In a press release, the Secretary stated that “[those] who flout our [the US Government’s] economic sanctions and export control laws will not go unpunished – they will suffer the harshest of consequences. Under President Trump’s leadership, we will be aggressively enforcing strong trade policies with the dual purpose of protecting American national security and protecting American workers.”
The official Chinese response to this record-breaking fine has been muted. In a press conference, Chinese Ministry of Commerce spokesperson Sun Jiwen asserted that China hoped “the US will handle this issue properly and create a sound environment for the stable and healthy development of bilateral trade and economic relations”. At the same time, however, he implicitly criticised the agreement by stating China’s opposition to the use of US domestic laws to sanction Chinese businesses, mirroring similar comments made by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who expressed China’s opposition to unilateral sanctions imposed on Chinese enterprises by foreign governments.
Analysts have suggested that this and other sanctions (both threatened and implemented) have galvanised China to develop its own domestic high-tech manufacturing industries more quickly, thus diminishing its reliance on US-based and international components manufacturers. The support for these domestic industries, however, has been criticised as protectionist and unfairly favoring Chinese companies to the detriment of international competitors.
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.
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 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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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).
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).