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Former top US envoy to China Gary Locke on Trump, trade and strategic mistrust

In an interview this week, former US ambassador to China Gary Locke expressed concerns about many aspects of US president-elect Donald Trump’s possible trade and foreign policies. He said Trump had “misimpressions” about China, as evidenced by his claims it was manipulating its currency. He also called on Trump to continue America’s pivot to Asia and to push ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact. Locke also expressed concerns that the US might lose its leadership role or credibility when moralising with other countries because Trump had not set a good personal example with his treatment of different ethnic and religious groups.

Trump must seize last chance to seal TPP deal, says former top US diplomat

This is an edited transcript of the interview:

Your thoughts on the election result?

I’ve always said it was going to be a very close election. I’ve always said that it was quite possible for her [Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton] to win the popular vote, to get more votes all across America than Donald Trump and still lose the election, because we have this funny system called the electoral college that gives so many votes to each state and then unfortunately it’s not based exactly on the popular vote. And I’ve long been saying there has been a group of people in America that are feeling very ignored by Democrats and Republicans. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were capturing their excitement and their support. I was very disappointed. I was very much supporting Hillary Clinton. I think she would have made a much better president. She is much more qualified than Donald Trump. And she’s respected around the world. She has a history of getting things done with people of all different perspectives, different viewpoints and she has a track record of working with the Republicans to get things done. So I’m very nervous about the future with Donald Trump as president. But he is [going to be] our president and as Hillary Clinton and [US] President [Barack] Obama said we have to give him a chance. He is, after all, going to be our president and president of America, and we need to support him, we need to help him and we need to – I hope that he will try to unify our country.

What have been the reactions from the US business community and leaders with whom you now work as a consultant?

It depends on which sector you’re talking about. There are some sectors that are very happy about his election. Let’s say, a few in the coal sector, you’re going to be very happy with Donald Trump because he doesn’t believe in climate change. So he thinks that the restrictions on the use of coal make no sense and he has vowed to remove the regulations, the restrictions on more coal[-fired] power plants, which I think would be very, very bad for not just America but the entire world. And it would be terrible in the efforts to fight climate change. If you are into exports, whether Boeing aeroplanes or specialised equipment to China, or even food, going to China, then you might need to be worried. Certainly Donald Trump has talked about imposing large tariffs on Chinese goods, which would only encourage the Chinese to impose reciprocal tariffs on American goods going into China. Once you start engaging in a tariff war, you end up in a trade war. And nobody wins in a trade war. So I’m very, very concerned about that. So yeah, I do have some concerns about what a Donald Trump presidency will mean in terms of foreign affairs, US-China relations, trade – and I also have deep concerns about [what] a Donald Trump presidency means for America, and for people of America. Nonetheless, with respect to US-China issues, ever since President [Richard] Nixon went to China [in 1972], we have had a fairly consistent US policy towards China, even with Republicans and Democrats who when they ran for office were very critical of US-China policy and were very critical of China. Once they became president, their policies were, in keeping with the policies of the past, the one-China policy, recognition of Beijing, but also reaffirmation of the Shanghai Communiqué.

How much do you think Trump’s campaign rhetoric about China and trade will translate into actual policy?

It really depends on who he surrounds himself with by way of advisers, and whether or not they are able to correct some of his misimpressions. I mean obviously China has removed some of the very tight control over the currency and it has significantly appreciated over the past several years. It’s depreciated more recently but … much of that was because of the global economy and many other countries’ currencies have depreciated in comparison with the strong US dollar. So he has made a lot of statements. And the question is whether or not, when confronted, when exposed to the truth, and to arguments and sound judgments of advisers, whether he will follow that sound advice. And of course it will really depends on [who] his advisers are. So I hope that he does surround himself with very solid knowledgeable people about US-China issues, and financial issues, strategic issues, so that he has accurate information in front of him before he speaks and acts.

What do you think of the names that are currently being floated as possible advisers or senior officials?

It’s still too early to tell, but some of it is rather surprising. And there are many people, very good and knowledgeable Republicans in the United States that could, that would be highly qualified and very respected for the many positions that he needs to fill. So it’s very early to tell yet.

What are the surprising names?

No, I’m just saying there are many, many people that he could be choosing from, so we’ll have to wait and see.

For the role of secretary of state, John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani are said to be among the possible choices. They are both seen as hawkish and some have expressed concerns about them. Your thoughts?

Well I’m going to be very concerned about who he surrounds himself in total. And I think he needs to make sure he has a balance of different viewpoints giving him advices. So let’s see who the final people are. And let’s see the spectrum of people that he puts together.

Your thoughts about Donald Trump pulling the US out of the TPP?

I very much support the TPP, and hope that the Congress will approve it before President Obama leaves office. I think that, for all the people who have concerns and complaints about trade deals and how they have not benefited the American workers or American companies, then they should be supporting the TPP. Because the TPP is really trying to address those very complaints that people have had about previous trade deals, about how foreign companies don’t have to abide by the same health, human safety and environmental standards that the American companies do. And a lot of people have complained that American products face huge tariffs and duties overseas. Well, the TPP addresses that. It forces those other companies, growers and manufacturers and other countries to abide by much higher environmental, health and human safety standards so that American companies are not at a competitive disadvantage and we’re all on a more level playing field. And with respect to tariffs and duties, I mean, so many goods come from other countries with virtually no tariffs and no duties. But American goods going to those same countries have very high tariffs and duties, that’s not fair. And so, for all the people who have been complaining about the unfair advantages that other companies and other countries received from our past trade deals, then this is something that they should support, because … this TPP is trying to address those very issues. It attempts to truly level the playing field for American companies and therefore American workers and that means jobs for the American people.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned that the focus of world trade would then shift to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) led by China.

Certainly if the United States does not move forward with the TPP, many other countries will be encouraged to form their own separate trade agreements or regional trade agreements and certainly the standards there will not be as high as the ones proposed in the TPP. So this is the last opportunity. This is the last opportunity to set a much higher standard trade agreement.

Are you worried that it might mean the US losing its lead over the world trade order?

No. It just means that American companies will continue to be uncompetitive, American workers and American companies will continue to be at a comparative disadvantage. So the sooner we have companies in other countries abiding by higher standards, the same ways American companies have to here in America, the better off everyone would be. So failing to act on the TPP is a lost opportunity. It doesn’t mean that we’ve given up our influence in the world. It will be unfortunate that countries are making goods at lower standards and treating their workers with lower health and human safety standards or less environmental protection than we have here in America.

Will the US become isolationist under Donald Trump?

Well, but at the same time, you’ve mentioned people that he’s considering for prominent positions that you said are considered to be hawks. So that’s why I say you really have to look at the totality of people surrounding him and who his key advisers will be and his key cabinet members will be. Are they hawks or are they ducks or are they isolationist or are they internationalist. It’s too early to tell. We don’t have the complete picture yet. But I hope he doesn’t become isolationist. I hope he stands for growing international trade and fair trade, [something] I’ve always believed in. Having more trade doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad trade. That’s why we should be supporting the TPP. Because that trade would be very high standard that would protect American workers and provide a level competition, fair competition for US companies. If people want to buy products made from other countries, that’s fine as long as there’s fair, open completion. Let people choose what they consider to be the best product. But it’s got to be done on even terms, with fairness.

What’s the future of the US pivot to Asia under Trump?

We don’t know yet because again, it depends on the people he appoints. We don’t know what the foreign policy would be. There’s a lot of uncertainty. Hillary Clinton, you might disagree with her, but you knew what her views were. And all these leaders from around the world have met with and have worked with Hillary Clinton, so she’s known to them. Very few people have worked with Donald Trump. He has no track record in foreign policy. So you don’t know what he really believes. And again we don’t know what kind of advisers he will surround himself with and who he will listen to. You know, basically, what Hillary Clinton’s positions are because you’ve been able to watch her for 20 years at the national and international level. So she has very firm views, and she has a record. You’ve seen her in action for 20 years and you know what her priorities are and how she works with other people and what they think of her.

You were outspoken about China’s human rights conditions while you were US ambassador to China. Trump has been described by President Obama as being driven by pragmatism, not the ideology of American values. Do you agree?

Well, he’s certainly not even setting a very good example with respect to the treatment of different ethnic groups and religious groups within America.

Does that mean the US might lose its credibility in moralising with other countries or imposing moral standards on other countries?

It’s very hard to tell other countries what to do if we’re not a good example within our own country.

Is the US losing its leadership role in the world? In Asia?

You can’t be a very good leader if you don’t practise what you preach in your own house, in your own country. It’s very difficult for any person to criticise another country if you’re not following those high standards within your own country. And why should another country listen to America if we are not even following our own standards and adhering to our own principles?

What do you think of the environment for investment in China for American companies in recent years?

I’ve long said that US companies that are going to China have to be careful. They have to find the right partners. They have to be sure to follow the law. They need to consult with experts in understanding the culture, the history, the language, the law of China and understand how business is done. They can’t rush in and need to be patient. And they have to do their homework. They have to study hard, study the Chinese markets. And it also depends on what sectors [they seek to enter]. There are many parts of the Chinese economy that are closed off for foreign investment or that are heavily regulated and foreign investors can only be minority shareholders, and you have to work with partners so it means picking your partners carefully, protecting your intellectual property, hiring good managers. So many American companies are cautious about the future of the Chinese economy. While they are still cautious about the Chinese economy and the rule of law and the political system, nonetheless they feel that there are good opportunities in China for various American companies. Not all are appropriate. Not all American products, service or companies can go into China. But in many sectors, there are great opportunities for US companies that will benefit both the Chinese people and the American people. Great opportunities for environmental technology to help clean up the air and the water. That’s something that will benefit the Chinese people, certainly advances the goal of the Chinese government and also creates jobs for the American people too. So we need to find those win-win opportunities and those win-win partnerships. Finding partnerships and collaborations to discover new medicines that will fight the new strain of TB that’s spreading throughout China, working together to find a cure for cancer. These are all great opportunities for US companies in partnership with Chinese.

How would you assess the current market access that American companies have in China?

Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step backward and one step sideways. It really depends. A lot of foreign companies, not just US companies, have a lot of deep concerns about some of the new rules about technology and control of things on the internet, requiring everything to be first approved by the Chinese government, and requiring data servers all to be located in China. It almost makes it not profitable to enter China if you have to have two separate systems – one system just for China. I’m talking about technology and the one outside of China.

Your thoughts on the current state of the US-China relationship and the biggest challenge facing the two countries in their relationship?

The US-China relationship today is still much stronger than it was 15 years, 20 years ago, or 40 years ago, when President Nixon first went to China. More than 30 years ago, when President [Jimmy} Carter re-established diplomatic relations with China. It’s gone up and down from day to day or month to month or year to year, but overall, if you keep looking at it, even compared to four years ago, when President Obama was re-elected or eight years ago when President Obama was first elected, the US-China relationship is still much stronger than it was when President Obama took office. We have many more collaborations, many more partnerships, even involving the military. We now have stronger military joint exercises and partnerships and collaboration and discussion. China and the United States are part of the process that convinced, worked out the deal with Iran, for Iran to stop developing a nuclear weapon. China and the United States worked together on the recent agreement on climate change. We don’t know what will happen under Donald Trump, unfortunately. But nonetheless we’ve made great progress. We work together in fighting piracy off the coast of Africa. And the Chinese navy has been invited to be part of the military exercises that the United States holds in the South Pacific involving many other countries. So the relationship today is much stronger than it was even eight years ago under President Obama. We just need to hope that president-elect Trump will continue that forward progress. He may have very harsh views about China. But I hope that he can talk with the Chinese leaders in a very candid nature … when the world leaders get together they have to be very honest to each other, but they can do it in a way that is respectful. So I hope that he will meet often with the Chinese leaders and have candid but respectful conversations and discussion.

How to address the strategic mistrust between China and the US in the past few years, especially with China being sceptical about US intentions with the pivot to Asia?

The pivot to Asia is basically saying, hey, we’ve been spending too much time in the Middle East and we have not spent as much time as we used to in the East, in the Asia-Pacific region. And now that we’re spending less time and now that we’re withdrawing and reducing our forces from the Middle East, we now can resume the level of attention in the Asia-Pacific that we used to have. That’s why I don’t think China should be looking so suspiciously, with such concern over the pivot to Asia. Maybe part of the problem is that we called it a pivot, that was a bad term. We have long been involved in the Asia-Pacific region, for more than a hundred years.

Should the US continue with the Asia pivot under Donald Trump?

Yes. Because the future of our trade and diplomatic initiatives will be in the Pacific Rim countries and in the Asia-Pacific region. Ninety-five per cent of the world’s consumers live out outside the United States. So you cannot ignore the rest of the world. And so much of what’s changing in the world is happening in the Asia-Pacific region, whether it’s the economic rise of China to the powerhouses of Japan and Korea or the innovations coming out of Singapore. The desire for democracy in Myanmar. How can you ignore what’s happening, the good things that are happening throughout the Asia-Pacific region?

Your thoughts on Donald Trump suggesting Japan should pay for American protection, and that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons?

We don’t need more countries developing nuclear weapons, that will only make the world less safe.

What should America’s China and Asia policy should look like under Trump?

I think it should be a continuation of the existing policies put in place since President Nixon and President Carter. Since President Nixon went to China and since President Carter re-established diplomatic relations with China.

What are the areas that America has not done enough, done too much or has not done right in terms of its Asia policy?

We need to continue engagement with Asia. It would be a mistake to turn away from Asia. We have been so preoccupied with the wars in the Middle East and terrorism coming out of the Middle East. And that’s why we have turned our attention or reduced our involvement in the Asia-Pacific region. Now that we are withdrawing the troops from the Middle East, it’s time that we re-engage or restore our level of engagement with the Asia-Pacific region, to the levels prior to September 11, 2001. That’s what the pivot to Asia was meant to be, to resume our engagement with the Asia-Pacific region, including China. And President Obama has said all along that the pivot included more diplomatic, cultural and political, and military engagement with China. That’s why you have seen more members of President Obama’s cabinet visiting China. You’ve seen even director of the CIA and the National Security Council adviser visiting China. The vice-president visiting China many times. The president himself going to China many times. And then inviting the Chinese top leaders, including the military to Washington DC to have high-level meetings. So that’s what the pivot was all about. Not to contain China but to actually engage, and have more dialogue, constructive dialogue and interaction with the people of the Asia-Pacific region including China. Now we still need to do a lot more. And that’s what I would hope for under the next administration.

In what terms?

All of it. In military terms it means having the military leaders of the United States visiting China and getting to know the military leaders of China. That means more joint exercises, inviting the Chinese to be part of these military exercises and practising disaster relief. Having more cultural exchanges. Having more exchanges of business leaders and partnerships among our scientists, that’s the types of engagement that the president meant by the pivot. We need more of that. We need even more.