Judging from the reactions by Chinese ministers and state-run media organs, Beijing is wary of former CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s appointment to Secretary of State, preferring his predecessor Rex Tillerson.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang was cordial in a press conference on Wednesday, even after a questioner pointed out that Pompeo is “much tougher on the U.S. relations with China and the DPRK” than Tillerson was. (DPRK is the North Korean government’s name for itself.)
“We have noted this personnel change of the U.S. administration,” said Lu. “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is about to leave office. During his time in office, Mr. Tillerson has been in close communication with the Chinese side and we commend his efforts for developing China-U.S. ties. We hope that Mr. Tillerson would remain committed to supporting China-U.S. ties in the future.”
“As for China’s expectation for China-U.S. relations after Mr. Pompeo takes office, we have noted that President Trump has nominated Mr. Pompeo to the post of the Secretary of State,” he continued.
Lu later expressed hopes that the change of Secretary of State would “have no impact on China-U.S. relations and bilateral cooperation in major fields” such as talks with North Korea or the Iran nuclear deal, which he praised as “a model of the international community working together to resolve the non-proliferation issue through political dialogue.”
The Chinese Communist paper Global Times was less optimistic, hailing the departing Tillerson as “a balancing figure against the Trump administration’s hawkish tendency toward China” despite his “harsh criticism of China’s foreign policy in dealing with African countries.”
That is a delicately airbrushed summary of what Tillerson harshly criticized—he was not so much critiquing Chinese foreign policy as slamming them for “predatory economics” and warning developing nations to avoid becoming Beijing’s debt serfs.
The Global Times was, however, willing to give Tillerson a pass for his criticism and a golf clap for his upbeat exit speech so it could trot out analysts who warned Pompeo is likely to be much tougher on China.
“Pompeo is a hawkish person with a military background, so in the Trump administration, whether on economic and trade policies or foreign and defense policies, hardliners have further strengthened and reinforced their influence, and this is rare in history,” said associate professor Diao Daming of Renmin University.
Diao predicted “China and the U.S. might have more friction on economic and trade issues and on international and regional affairs, including the Korean Peninsula issue and the Iran nuclear deal” under Pompeo.
The Global Times followed up with an editorial portraying Tillerson’s firing as evidence of “a lack of willingness or ability on Trump’s part to see disagreements resolved,” which is pretty funny given what happens to Chinese officials who have serious disagreements with president-for-life Xi Jinping.
Metaphors are mixed in the Global Times analysis, which views the Trump administration as a cat-and-mouse game, a casino, and some sort of foamy beverage all at once:
How far the Trump administration is willing to go in this cat-and-mouse game remains a gambler’s guess. Understandably, Trump might be seeking the high grounds of artful bartering while pushing along Trump’s “America First” strategy. However, unlike the more restrained Tillerson, the president’s new expert Pompeo is likely to add more foam to the top, leading to uncertainty and a higher risk.
The US government exerts its power, transnationally, through its diplomatic policies. But, these policies will fast turn to old ploys if they are saddled by the stagnated power of a superpower in disarray, such as the US these days. The American public expect their leaders to accomplish feats, in both the domestic and foreign arenas, but they hardly have endowed their president with the power to make perilous decisions. In this respect, the predicted rise of hard-liners in Washington remains doubtful.
The Xinhua news service cited Pompeo’s “hawkish foreign policy views” and said he seems “far more eager to rock the boat than his predecessor.”
“While his predecessor, outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, was seen as a voice of reason, the Trump administration wants to fill the position of head diplomat with someone who is more like Trump—eager to shake things up,” Xinhua wrote, continuing China’s remarkably sporting effort to forget all that stuff Tillerson said about China’s sinister debt slavery agenda to festoon him with bouquets as the level-headed helmsman of Trump’s boat-rocking crew.
Much of Xinhua’s anxiety about Pompeo boils down to his deep mistrust of North Korea and criticism of previous U.S. administrations for not doing enough to denuclearize the regime.
Another Xinhua piece cites concerns in Turkey that Pompeo takes a dimmer view of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies that Tillerson did, having once referred to Erdogan’s government as a “totalitarian Islamist dictatorship” in a tweet that was later deleted.
Business Insider asserts that contrary to the rhetorical cookie baskets gifted to Tillerson by Chinese media, Beijing was “none too happy” with Tillerson, but they’re downright “terrified” of Pompeo, primarily because Pompeo shares Trump’s view of China as a major competitor of the United States.
CNBC’s Jim Cramer thought Pompeo was tapped for Secretary of State in order to send a “startling message” to China.
“It says to China you are our enemy,” Cramer said on Tuesday. “This is about China being our intellectual and economic enemy.”
He approved of the message, saying, “Anything short of that is just a mistake.”
On the other hand, Ankit Panda at the Diplomat recalls Pompeo praising President Xi Jinping as the last Chinese Communist Party conference was getting underway, predicting that Xi would “come out of this in a dominant position with incredible capacity to do good around the world.”
He also points out that Pompeo is clearly closer to Trump than Tillerson ever was, which could make him a “more useful conduit” for Beijing if they treat the new Secretary of State well.
Panda measures this against Pompeo sizing China up as America’s greatest medium—to long-term geopolitical rival and asserting that at any given moment, “they are probably trying to either steal our stuff or make sure they can defeat it.” Pompeo also has a record of expressing concern about Chinese aggression in the south China Sea.
“For now, China should presume that however Trump blows, so will Pompeo,” Panda concludes.