Updated Jan 31, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Trump's lack of China circle leaves gap for newcomers

Donald Trump standing among deconstructed Chinese and American flags

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Some top China experts from former President Trump's administration don't plan to work for him again, leaving the field wide open for newcomers.

Why it matters: The U.S. and China are maintaining stability in their relationship despite being at odds over Taiwan, allegations of espionage, technology controls, import bans and regional maritime disputes. The people Trump surrounds himself in a second presidency would shape the direction of its China policy during this critical time.

  • Trump himself has so far said little about China on the campaign trail beyond suggesting more tariffs on Chinese-made goods.
  • It's still early in the campaign season, however, and the Trump campaign isn't likely to build out a substantive foreign policy team until later this year.

What's happening: "Many senior officials from the Trump administration do not seem interested in working for him again," one former Trump administration official told Axios.

  • That's particularly true among those for whom China has been a career-long focus.
  • That means there is a big opportunity for experts on China policy who weren't in Trump's inner circle during his first term, according to conversations with a dozen China policymakers, analysts, former Trump administration officials and others with knowledge of the issue.
  • The Trump campaign declined to comment.

Between the lines: Trump's top priority for choosing aides and advisers is personal loyalty, rather than filtering for specific policy positions, former Trump officials told Axios.

  • "Trump doesn't do policy" was a common refrain among former officials and others in similar circles who spoke to Axios.
  • That makes his personnel choices for China advisers all the more important because their individual policy preferences could have extra sway in a possible second term.

Details: Several China experts' names were raised frequently in conversations Axios had with former Trump administration officials and others.

Steve Yates is senior fellow and chair of the China Policy Initiative at the America First Policy Institute, founded in 2021 by former top Trump officials. AFPI is described as a "White House in waiting" for a second Trump term.

  • Yates has championed a tough approach to China and is a strong Taiwan supporter — views that are no longer a given due to the rise of an isolationist wing of the Republican Party.
  • Yates speaks Chinese and has a long career in national security. He started out as an analyst at the National Security Agency, later served as deputy national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, and advised several Republican presidential campaigns on Asia.

Elbridge Colby served as the Defense Department's deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development from 2017 to 2018. He now runs Marathon Initiative, an organization he founded that focuses on great power competition.

  • Colby promotes the idea that the U.S. should avoid entanglements in Ukraine and the Middle East and focus on competition with China. This viewpoint is gaining traction among some Republicans.

Kiron Skinner served as the director of the State Department's policy planning office under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from 2018 to 2019. She also served on Trump's transition team.

  • She's now a professor at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a visiting fellow at Heritage Foundation — the conservative think tank that is compiling staffing lists for a second Trump term and vetting those candidates for loyalty and agreement with Trump's views, a massive project known as Project 2025.
  • Skinner is the author of the chapter about the State Department in the Heritage Foundation's lengthy policy proposal supporting Project 2025. In her chapter, she claims "large swaths of the State Department's workforce are left-wing" — an echo of Trump's "deep state" claims — and calls for sweeping reform of the department in support of a conservative president's agenda.
  • Skinner regularly appears on Fox News to comment on international affairs. She supports an expansive role for U.S. foreign policy in the world. She views China as a major threat and is critical of a conciliatory approach to Beijing.

Miles Yu served as the China policy adviser to Pompeo, and he's now director of the China Center at Hudson Institute.

  • He's also a professor at the United States Naval Academy with expertise in the Chinese military.
  • Skinner and Yu together helped formulate the State Department's China strategy.

What to watch: Once the Republican nominee is set, expect foreign policy — and China, in particular — to become a bigger talking point in the presidential race.

Go deeper: How Trump would build his loyalty-first Cabinet

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