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Trump's First 100 Days: China Policy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're examining President Trump's first 100 days this week. And today, we're focusing on China. Some of the president's harshest words during and after the campaign have been aimed at that country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We can't continue to allow China to rape our country. And that's what they're doing. It's the greatest theft in the history of the world.

MARTIN: As a candidate, Donald Trump talked about how he believed China was stacking the deck on trade in part by manipulating the value of its currency. But he tweeted the following recently - (reading) why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem? China expert Michael Pillsbury, who advised the Trump transition team, explains the turnaround this way.

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: I think what happened was a very serious strategy review took place about what to do about China during the transition.

MARTIN: I asked Pillsbury how he now views Trump's early, more aggressive rhetoric. Was this a strategic move on the part of Donald Trump or was it just he didn't know and we're just witnessing a learning curve?

PILLSBURY: I think it's more of a learning curve. I think he was expressing during the campaign 15 years' worth of his views on China. So obviously, a new president gets the update what's happening in the real world. That's why we have a CIA and an intelligence community.

MARTIN: But when it comes to policy, is North Korea the issue that's providing the most common ground in this relationship?

PILLSBURY: I think so. Mr. Trump's tweets have made clear that he's willing to give China a better deal on trade, he said, if China will get results with North Korea. The Chinese side has really been quite different. They're embarrassed by North Korea. They've been declaring for 15 years they don't want nuclear weapons in either North Korea or South Korea. But they haven't done much about it. So he has put President Xi on the spot by publicly, several times, saying this all depends on China.

So this is new. This wasn't done by Bill Clinton or President Obama or George W. Bush. They never put this kind of public pressure on the Chinese leadership.

MARTIN: You've talked about common ground on the North Korea issue in particular when it comes to U.S. and China. But for a lot of China's neighbors, the issues that are most important seem to be human rights abuses in China and the battle over the South China Sea - the South China Sea, of course, being an issue about territorial expansion for China. Where are these in the conversation right now between the Trump administration and the government of Xi Jinping?

PILLSBURY: I think both South China Sea and human rights have yet to be decided. He has some options. I'm on the board of Freedom House. We wrote a letter to Mr. Trump advocating that human rights be raised at the Mar-a-Lago summit. I think to some degree they were, but that's not one of the channels that's been set up. So that's a disappointment to the human rights community. So I think both these two issues you raise are still ahead of us later on this year.

MARTIN: I will close sort of where we began, talking about who Donald Trump was as a candidate and the kind of rhetoric he used targeting China with some really harsh language. Stepping back away from that now as the president, does that mean he is not the disruptor in this relationship that Americans perhaps thought he would be?

PILLSBURY: Well, I think his advisers had a lot more experience on China than most people assumed his advisers would have. Mr. Trump himself draws on experience visiting China and actually doing business with the Chinese. So some disruption, yes, a fresh approach. But a major throwing out of the last 40 years of U.S.-China relations, no, I don't see that.

So I'd have to give him an A or an A-minus for his China policy in the first hundred days, especially when you realize the fear a lot of Americans had that he would just make some huge catastrophe out of U.S.-China relations.

MARTIN: Although is that how you get an A-minus, by setting the bar low and then, you know, coming back to where all the other mainstream leaders are on this?

PILLSBURY: Well, he hasn't come back to where all the other mainstream leaders are. There's been some innovation that we have yet to see how this will work out.

MARTIN: Michael Pillsbury is director for Chinese strategy at the Hudson Institute here in Washington. He's also the author of the book titled "The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Strategy To Replace America." Mr. Pillsbury, thanks so much for coming in.

PILLSBURY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.