Seasoned journalist analyzes US-China relations under Trump


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John Pomfret, an American journalist and writer, takes a question from the audience following his remarks on U.S.-China relations at the Bechtel Conference Center, Feb. 15, 2017.
Photo credit: 
Patrick Laboon

The future of relations between China and the United States depends on the readiness of both governments to focus on resolving shared challenges, longtime journalist John Pomfret said at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) last Wednesday.
“The reality of the U.S.-China relationship is collaboration and competition,” said Pomfret, who served for 15 years as a foreign correspondent, describing the nature of interaction between the two countries that began to normalize relations in 1972.
Pomfret's remarks were delivered at a colloquium entitled, “The United States and China in the Era of Donald Trump,” which explored the unorthodox approach Donald Trump took during his campaign on a range of issues related to China, and implications for the bilateral relationship now that Trump has assumed the U.S. presidency.
Pomfret over the course of his journalism career spent seven years covering China, including during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and from 1998 through 2003 as the bureau chief for the Washington Post in Beijing, and recently authored the book, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, which examines U.S.-China relations from 1776 to the present. He won the 2007 Shorenstein Journalism Award, an annual honor conferred to a journalist who produces outstanding reporting on Asia.
“It’s clear that a new type of reciprocity is needed to right the balance in the U.S.-China relationship, but just whether Trump and his team have the wherewithal to do it…is very much an open question,” he said.
Trump continues to promise to restore manufacturing jobs in the United States, but fulfillment of that promise could come in conflict with its trade relationship with China, where much manufacturing of U.S. products takes place, he said.
Equally important in the U.S.-China relationship is how to address North Korea and its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program, which remains an “extremely complicated” and pressing situation, he said.
Pomfret expressed uncertainty about the Trump administration’s capacity to change China’s position from the status quo, which has long supported the North Korean regime by way of trade and relaxed implementation of U.N. sanctions despite repeated provocations.
Yet, amidst the vague foreign policy positions projected by Trump toward China, “there is one positive, and that is that he has the Chinese off-balance,” Pomfret admitted.
For Pomfret, his appearance at Stanford was a bit of a homecoming; he spoke to an audience of 200 faculty, students and community members at the colloquium sponsored by the China Program and Center for East Asian Studies, the center from which he received his master’s degree in 1984.
Asked about the future of China and its governance, he noted that today’s China is markedly different than when he was there in the 1980s studying as a student, and later, working as a journalist. The generational changes are stark, said Pomfret, relaying a sense of optimism that the country would become more democratic over time.
“The amount of personal freedoms that the average Chinese person has has expanded exponentially. I think the desire of Chinese people to have more agency over their lives will continue to grow – that’s clear.”
Innovation will be a determinant of China’s future growth, said Pomfret, coupling the idea that societies that have knowledge-driven economies typically demand more freedoms. Without innovation, China will fall into the middle-income trap, he said, “I don’t think they want to be there; they are an incredibly proud nation.”