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Trump, China And A Long History Of Misunderstandings


Now the latest wrinkle in U.S.-China relations from a journalist who's made a study of how the two countries have dealt with each other since the 1700s. After winning the election, Donald Trump took a phone call from the president of Taiwan, and that broke with 40 years of U.S. policy.

It raised questions about whether Trump will continue the One China Policy, the idea that Taiwan and mainland China - the People's Republic of China - are part of the same country and that Washington recognizes the government in Beijing as the government of that country. Trump fueled speculation by talking about that on Fox News over the weekend.


DONALD TRUMP: I don't know why we have to be bound by One China Policy unless we make a deal with China.

SIEGEL: And he mentioned trade, monetary policy and claims to the South China Sea as issues in need of a possible deal. Well, if the U.S. were to turn away from the One China Policy, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the healthy, stable development of China-U.S. relations would be out of the question.

John Pomfret, who covered China for The Washington Post, has written a new book called "The Beautiful Country And The Middle Kingdom" about America and China, and he joins us from San Francisco. Welcome to the program.

JOHN POMFRET: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: How important is the One China Policy to U.S.-China relations?

POMFRET: It's this fiction that has undergirded the relationship between the two sides since they re-engaged in the 1970s. It's extremely important.

SIEGEL: The fiction being that Taiwan, which is a de facto independent state, is not. It's part of China.

POMFRET: Right. And there's a fiction that the United States sort of agrees with China on the status of Taiwan.

SIEGEL: You describe all kinds of cycles and policies and attitudes in the U.S. toward China. Is what Donald Trump just did - is it out of line with what recent statements have been?

POMFRET: Recent statements for sure, but there is a strain in America's views of China that believes that the United States has been way too supportive of the Chinese, should be impatient with China, should confront China head on. So he does fall with - he's not an outlier in his views on China from the historic perspective. There is a radical American approach to China, and he seems to be embracing that right now.

SIEGEL: I've been asking about the relationship between Washington and Beijing, but on the other side is the relationship between Washington and Taiwan. They claim to be the government of China. That's pretty fictitious at this point. But if they went independent, that would blow the fiction out of the waters.

POMFRET: Exactly, and that's the danger. It's part of the danger of Donald Trump's referring to Taiwan's president as the president of Taiwan as if there was a real state of Taiwan. Now, in fact there is, but the fiction is to say there's not. And that's one of the things that has kept the peace in Asia by maintaining this fiction. And so if you pull that out and if you basically say the emperor has no clothes, you run the risk of pushing China into a much more aggressive posture vis-a-vis Taiwan.

At the end of the day, I don't particularly worry about a war between the United States and China right now, but I really worry that this will give people in the Mainland China a justification to squeeze Taiwan even more than it's already squeezing Taiwan. At the end of the day, I just worry that once again Taiwan's going to be thrown under the bus.

SIEGEL: Your book covers almost two and a half centuries of U.S.-China dealings. And one point that you make is that while we may have heard a lot over time about one country taking advantage over the other country, the truth is that each country - China and the U.S. - has been very important in the other's growth and development.

POMFRET: Exactly. Basically the founding fortunes of the United States were made on the basis of very productive and lucrative trade with China. And that money in turn was invested and formed the basis for the American industrial revolution.

From the Chinese perspective as well, their first touches with modern education, modern technology came in contact with the United States. And the United States became a key factor in the whole modernization of China. All of the major Chinese universities today basically were initially founded by Western missionaries.

SIEGEL: And of course there were lots of Chinese who were tapped to go study at American universities and who went back to become leaders of China.

POMFRET: Exactly. In fact, the foundation of an example would be China's nuclear bomb program in the 1950s. Those students and those researchers actually had come from the United States and returned to China to help China build its bomb.

SIEGEL: Another recurring point that you make in your book, whether it's about missionaries or journalists or policymakers, is that Americans have a terrible track record of misunderstanding China. What is it that we typically just don't get about the Chinese?

POMFRET: I think partially because we considered ourselves to be the apex of the West, and the Chinese consider themselves. And we basically look at them as the apex of the East. We have often a powerfully emotive, romantic notion that we'll be able to form some type of unified sort of position on the world and then together solve the world's problems.

We also believe that because of our friendship toward China and our warm feelings toward China, that naturally they will want to become more like us, and that has been a bet that Americans have been making since the 1840s. (Laughter) And in many cases, it really hasn't played out that way.

SIEGEL: More like us might have been Protestant like most Americans or might have been more Democratic, more open.

POMFRET: Exactly - or more capitalist. I mean all these bets that have been made - and this is not something that just started in the 1970s. This is something that goes way back into our history. And in many cases, it just hasn't turned out that way.

SIEGEL: John Pomfret, author of "The Beautiful Country And The Middle Kingdom" - it's a book about America and China - thanks for talking with us today.

POMFRET: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.