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A Pivot on New Terms: From Transformational to Transactional Diplomacy

President Trump calmed nerves in Asian Capitols this month after a string of firebrand comments on the campaign trail. He confirmed to Beijing that the United States would respect the “One China Policy.” He took Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe on a golfing trip to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. When North Korea performed in another nuclear-capable missile test during the trip, he assured Prime Minister Abe that the United States “stands behind Japan, its great ally, one hundred percent.”

On the campaign trail, then-candidate Trump’s promises suggested a pivot away from Asia. During the campaign, he promised, on his very first day, to pull the United States out of talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, label China, and possibly Japan, as currency manipulators, and to substantially reduce American military expenditure in Asia. As president-elect, he provoked uncertainty on both sides of the Taiwan straight when he suggested he might use the “One China Policy” as a negotiating point when reevaluating U.S.-China trade relations.

For now, observers might be forgiven to think that the passions of the campaign have calmed. After all, presidents since Nixon have backed off from their hawkish words on China after taking office.

Nonetheless, the White House still believes idealistic Obama and Bush Administration policies that sought to create a more peaceful world through engagement and trade have failed. President Trump has made it clear he will use the Department of Commerce and the Foreign Service to make sure the United States gets the most lucrative “deal” from its relationships with other countries, a strategy often called “transactional diplomacy.” Leon Hadar, former Fellow at the Cato Institute, argues the Trump Administration has no grand vision for the world, but seeks to approach policy issues on a “case-by-case” and “cost-effective” basis. Hadar argues the forty-fifth president is not a “raving isolationist,” but rather a “shrewd businessman” who wants to exert pressure on Beijing to take action on currency devaluation and decrease the trade deficit.

President Trump shaking hands with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Washington, D.C. Trump has reassured Japan that the US is firmly committed to the security of Japan and “stands by Japan…one hundred percent”.

Despite the fact that many Republican and Democratic members of Congress hope to act as a “moderating influence” on the President, confidence in idealistic, liberal internationalist foreign policy has eroded in the Republican and Democratic Parties. With the disintegration of the policy of engagement, Capitol Hill is unlikely to oppose this shift from transformational to transactional diplomacy. Particularly in foreign policy towards China, both Republicans and Democrats advocate a hardline approach towards China in the economic and political realms.

As a Congressional Intern last year, I had the privilege of attending a hearing in November hosted by the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific that sought to grill the Obama Administration’s Pivot to Asia policy. First proposed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011, the “Pivot to Asia” promoted solidifying existing American alliances in East Asia with Japan and South Korea, seeking out new partnerships in Southeast Asia, and engaging with China in areas of common interest. In Foreign Policy magazine, Secretary Clinton stated that the United States should “work with China to build mutual trust, and to encourage China’s active efforts in global problem-solving.” Clinton’s State Department assumed that constructive engagement over points of agreement, like combating climate change and terrorism, would press China to “take important steps toward reform,” such as ending discrimination against foreign firms, removing preferences for domestic companies, and putting an end to policies that disadvantage international intellectual property.

The Members of Congress on the Subcommittee from both parties lacked confidence that the pivot to Asia had been successful. Congressman Matt Salmon of Arizona, Chairman of the Subcommittee, asserted that after many years of trying, “[the United States’] posture in Asia is not what we hoped for when the pivot was introduced.” Despite attempts at constructive engagement, he argued, American hopes that China would turn towards democracy after years of interaction through trade and investment from the West had not come to fruition. Mr. Salmon, who had long advocated for the power of transformational diplomacy, told his colleague Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Congressman infamously opposed to warming US-China ties since his election to Congress in 1989, “I will say to you, with egg all over my face, I was wrong.” 

Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his trip to the US. Trump has reassured his Chinese counterparts that he will respect the One China Policy, reversing previous suggestions that he would do otherwise. The One China Policy is often cited as the political basis of US-China relations, and so Trump’s reassurance eased the tension that had been mounting between the two states.

Salmon’s admittance of defeat is important, even if only symbolically. After serving as chair since the 2014 midterm elections, the Arizona Congressman planned to retire at the end of the 2016 Congress. Salmon brought a wealth of experience on China to the Subcommittee. Once considered the Pivot’s key ally in Congress, he supported engagement short of appeasement with China and was one of the only members of the Tea Party Coalition to back the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Salmon was one of the only fluent Mandarin speakers on Capitol Hill, having worked as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan in his youth. In his first stint in Congress in the 1990s, he supported granting China permanent most-favored nation trade status. He personally negotiated with President Jiang Zemin for the release of UCLA professor Song Yongyi ahead of China’s admittance to the WTO in 2000. Salmon would proclaim at the time, “this breakthrough is proof that engagement [with China] works.”

Perhaps Congressman Salmon no longer thinks engagement with China works. While the November hearing was the last meeting of the Subcommittee Salmon would chair before retirement, the fact that he, one of the last China idealists in Congress, admitted the policy of constructive engagement was a failure shows a broader shift on the part of Congress.

There are many other signs that what China Hand Jim Mann called the “China Fantasy” has disappeared in Congress. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties are more willing to pursue legislation that challenges Beijing on human rights, the economic policy, and foreign policy than to promote engagement wherever possible. Even Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has praised President Trump’s plan to label China a currency manipulator. Last December, Senator Schumer also pressed then-Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew to expand the oversight capabilities of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) following Dalian Wanda Group’s acquisition of a string of Hollywood film companies. The Democratic Leadership has much in common with the Administration when it comes to trade policy.

As the idealism of the post-Cold War era fades, the Administration’s foreign economic policies, void of any strategic vision, might be one of the only areas in which the two parties can agree. President Trump’s characteristic transactional diplomacy fills the void left by the death of the “China Fantasy”. The President still promises to pivot to Asia, but for the sake of making a good deal for his constituents rather than for the sake of a safer world.

Alec Nash is a 2016 graduate of Emory University and a contributor to You can find him on Twitter @alechnash.