“As close as lips and teeth,” goes the Chinese proverb traditionally cited to describe the nation’s relationship with North Korea. This week, President Donald Trump heads to Singapore to negotiate with Kim Jong Un over North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear arms program, in what may be the most consequential deal of his life. Chinese President Xi Jinping will be watching these negotiations closely, wary of any concessions on North Korea’s part that could lead to greater U.S. influence on a continent over which his party grows increasingly dominant each year. It was surely no coincidence that Kim arrived in Singapore on a Chinese jet.
When the Chinese National People’s Congress moved to remove term limits for Xi in early March, Claremont McKenna professor Minxin Pei described his government as “not your garden-variety dictatorship, but a successor to a totalitarian regime.” The reign of the Communist Party of China, now inseparable from the Chinese state itself, stretches back nearly seven decades; the scope of its domestic rule and its global power would seem to require the judicious evaluation of a team of U.S. experts who themselves span generations. President Donald Trump has advocated for a different approach. “Why are you doing state dinners for them?” he asked rhetorically at a 2015 campaign stop. “They’re ripping us left and right. Just take them to McDonald’s and go back to the negotiating table.”
As Trump sits down at the table with Kim this week, China-watchers (and the Chinese themselves) will be paying close attention to what the results signal regarding the nation’s relationship with the United States. The 10 people on this list are those with either the knowledge and perspective to improve our understanding of this crucial relationship or the proximity to the levers of power to shape it. Trump’s stream of brash proclamations about China have posed a mighty challenge for those tasked with retrofitting them to reality—and the next seven decades may depend on how well they fare. In no particular order:
In the world of U.S.-China relations, Michael Pillsbury has already lived several lives. As an analyst with the RAND Corp. in the 1970s, he was one of the leading voices calling for closer Cold War ties with China, eventually earning a post as assistant undersecretary of defense for policy planning in the Reagan administration. While there, he encouraged President Ronald Reagan to arm Afghanistan’s mujahedeen with surface-to-air Stinger missiles, in the hope that assisting the Chinese-allied resistance would leverage China against the Soviets. Those missiles infamously found their way to several rogue states after the end of the war in Afghanistan, Pillsbury’s decision backfiring much like the Western expectation that an ascendant China would cozy up to the U.S. as a matter of course. Today, Pillsbury has changed his tune, cheerleading for Trump’s aggressive trade policies and criticizing the “globalist” status quo in an appearance on Breitbart Radio. There, he went so far as to compare the regime to Nazi Germany, a far cry from the hands-across-the-water ethos of his earlier days—but exactly the kind of tough talk that’s endeared him to the new regime at home. Pillsbury reportedly has the ear of the administration from his current perch at the Hudson Institute, and a voice that combines his institutional expertise with a willingness to scrap with China on the world stage could be an invaluable asset to a White House attempting to rewrite decades of foreign policy on the fly.
Minxin Pei, the professor and fellow at Claremont McKenna College quoted above in conversation with The Atlantic in March, could be forgiven for saying “I told you so.” Pei, whose career as an academic stretches from Shanghai in the early 1980s to his current post at Claremont, is a longtime critic of the widespread Cold War-era belief that Western openness to China would inevitably lead to a reciprocal, liberalizing embrace. Pei’s deep knowledge of the internal workings of the Chinese state led him to believe otherwise, and when the Communist Party abolished presidential term limits this spring it was further proof of a reputation as an expert that needed no bolstering. Pei has further predicted that, in addition to stifling Chinese civic life, the Party’s tightening grip will eventually smother its ever-expanding economy. “Because of the predatory nature of one-party rule, such economic success cannot last,” he asserted in 2016 to the New York Times. “The historical record is not encouraging for the Communist Party.”
“I’m getting hawks in. I’m getting Susan Thornton out at State.” So declared Steve Bannon in his calamitous, rollicking August interview with The American Prospect, giddy at another opportunity to give the establishment the boot. Nine months later, Thornton is still in her position as the acting assistant secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department, and the now-former White House chief strategist is on the outside looking in. Thornton, a diplomatic lifer with stints in China, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Armenia, has been continually attacked from the right for her perceived dovishness, by figures far less caustic than Bannon including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). But her effectiveness and her expertise endeared her to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, allowing her to wield great influence over diplomacy with the 31 Asian countries she oversees. The installation of new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may leave her future in doubt, but for the moment, fellow Asia hands say, Thornton is a steady and knowledgeable hand at a State Department with an unprecedented dearth of them.
Peter Navarro was used to being sidelined when it came to international trade. Navarro, a 68-year-old former professor of economics whose most respected work focused on domestic issues, turned later in his career to anti-Chinese polemic, leaving him frozen out of traditional global policy and economic circles. Even when a sympathetic Trump installed him in the White House, Navarro was adjunct to “Globalist” Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs CEO who steered the administration’s trade ship and kept him relatively sidelined. No more. With Cohn gone, Navarro and his protectionist impulses have been given free reign, his mind-meld with Trump on China’s supposed economic treachery boosting both his influence and public profile. Navarro is credited as the driving force between this spring’s round of tariffs that baffled traditional economists and China experts and delighted Trump’s trade-skeptical base. He may face a newly resurgent opposition in the White House, however, as represented by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin—with whom a reported shouting match ended in Navarro’s banishment from recent trade talks. Tensions have appeared to cool recently over Navarro’s pet tariffs. Despite such setbacks, however, he remains at the vanguard of an aggressive bloc (including Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer) that may yet have the potential to upend the economic status quo.
The ascent of unlikely figures such as Navarro and Pillsbury after Trump’s election had its inverse in the number of liberal establishment figures who suddenly found themselves left out in the cold. In the alternate universe in which Hillary Clinton was elected in 2016, Elizabeth Economy of the Council of Foreign Relations may well have found herself as one of the most prominent voices on China policy, having displayed her expertise with 2014’s well-received By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest Is Changing the World. In that book, she and co-author Michael Levi explored the limitations of Beijing’s ambitions toward global economic dominance, predicting that the hype around China’s purported natural resource domination is largely overblown. With unique expertise on China’s deep environmental problems, Economy has become a leading voice on China’s role in the scramble to define a global policy stance on global warming, arguing in the pages of this magazine that those expecting it to step into the vacuum left by the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords will be sorely disappointed. With China’s rise and the global warming crisis expected to continue unabated, her perspective is likely to be invaluable regardless of who occupies the White House.
More than 46 years after Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, his secretary of state’s perspective is still sought out by even figures as allergic to orthodoxy and tradition as Trump. Kissinger, now 94, has met with Trump three times since his election, most recently in February, reportedly discussing North Korea and China in a private meeting. The two are an unlikely pair, with Trump’s hostility toward China contrasting with Kissinger’s well-known dovishness. Kissinger, whose Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center advocates “that a strong relationship between China and the United States is vital to geopolitical security,” has been so steadfast and adamant in his argument for a stronger U.S.-Sino alliance that critics have gone so far as to suggest he register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. But his base of institutional knowledge is undeniable, with his hefty 2011 tome On China serving as a bible of sorts for outsiders attempting to understand the nation on its own terms. To state that “our challenge is to find a way for American exceptionalism and China’s dreams to produce a new world order for the benefit of all,” as Kissinger did last year at Columbia University, might sound like anathema to the new Trumpian consensus. But if Trump wants to reach a new bargain with Beijing, he’d probably want to listen to the man who opened U.S.-China relations in the first place.
Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has a CV as long as the list of publications to which she’s contributed—stretching from the New York Times to the more narrowly focused Korean Journal of Defense Analysis. Glaser’s lengthy résumé reflects a career spent almost totally dedicated to characterizing China’s place on the world stage, recently having served on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Asia policy team in addition to her work with CSIS. Glaser has emerged as an expert voice with regard to China’s sway over the conflict on the Korean Peninsula, as well. She doesn’t expect their poor current relations to prevent them from taking an active role in the tense negotiations, and she takes a skeptical eye as such. “If [Korean] negotiations follow a Trump-Xi summit, China will very likely seek to participate,” she wrote in a March editorial for NPR. “Ensuring that China has a seat at the negotiating table should not be a central U.S. objective. Glaser has had a solid track record with such predictions—in October, months before the announcement that the Communist Party would remove term limits for the presidency, she wrote for the Lowy Institute that “the international community might look back at the 19th Party Congress as the moment when China’s long march toward reclaiming its great-power status was matched with the confidence needed to present China as a buttress against Western liberalism.” Her status as a Clintonite may make her persona non grata to the current administration, but with her list of accomplishments other China-watchers will undoubtedly continue to listen.
Matthew Pottinger, senior director for Asia on Trump’s National Security Council staff, has taken a circuitous path to his post, but it started with the same focus he holds now—squarely on China. Pottinger, son of bureaucrat and author J. Stanley Pottinger, covered China for Reuters and the Wall Street Journal until the mid-2000s, when he joined the Marines. After his service he worked in think tanks, hedge funds and again as a writer before being named to the NSC by Michael Flynn, his commanding officer in Afghanistan. Pottinger survived Flynn’s head-spinningly quick ouster, and has proven himself a rare steady hand able to negotiate the no man’s land between Trumpian bluster and NatSec realpolitik. While walking that tightrope proved an insurmountable task for his former boss, H.R. McMaster, Pottinger has handled it skillfully, doing the sometimes thankless, nuts-and-bolts daily work of directing traffic for U.S.-China policy. It remains to be seen whether Pottinger will stay in the good graces of his third boss in two years in new national security adviser John Bolton, but early results are encouraging for him—he was one of a small crew of just four who accompanied Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his recent mission to North Korea to retrieve three American hostages.
To the average person, Henry Paulson’s name might at first bring to mind the 2008 economic crisis for which he’s been assigned blame by critics from “Inside Job” filmmaker Charles Ferguson to Time magazine. In the world of China policy, however, he’s known as the American with perhaps the closest access to the upper echelons of Chinese leadership, with the possible exception of Henry Kissinger. The connections Paulson developed over his more than three decades with the investment bank Goldman Sachs have put him in a unique position to serve as an interlocutor between China and the U.S., and in 2011 he founded the Paulson Institute, dedicated to strengthening cooperation between the two countries. As a dove in a newly hawkish world, Paulson’s influence is limited in the White House, especially after the departure of his close ally and fellow Goldman alum Gary Cohn. But his access to Chinese leadership makes him a central figure despite the direction in which the political winds are currently blowing, and those keen to understand the economic maneuverings of the Chinese state continue to seek his counsel, Paulson relays the view from his 30,000-foot vantage point in his 2015 book Dealing With China, drawing on his firsthand experience to argue that the world has no choice but to “find China a better seat at the table.” Even in the currently hostile climate, Paulson has continued to advocate for closer ties, in a November editorial writing in his typically phlegmatic manner that “Without increased market access, the path we are on could lead to important parts of the global economy being walled off from competition and trade. This risks hurting both the United States and China, which are the biggest beneficiaries of a rules-based economic order.”
Bill Bishop is who the very people on this list read when they need a quick debriefing on the day’s news out of China. His “Sinocism” newsletter, published four times a week, has thousands of paid subscribers and keeps interested parties in capitals across the globe up to date on the sometimes overwhelming amount of news coming out of the Middle Kingdom. Bishop was a co-founder of MarketWatch in 1997, and after its sale to Dow Jones in 2004 moved to China full time to study the nation up close. That expertise led to the creation of his newsletter in Beijing in 2011, and its insightfulness hasn’t diminished since his return to the United States. Fellow China-watcher James Mann described him as “one of the very best analysts in Washington of what’s happening inside China, day in and day out—whether for domestic politics, business or in Sino-American relations,” and Bishop’s ability to combine that intimate, wide-ranging knowledge with a to-the-point style have made Sinocism required reading. With the high-powered fans that the newsletter enjoys, it may be no surprise for close China-watchers to see its insights today in the policy pronouncements of tomorrow.