Donald Trump's China trade expert has little experience of working with Asian country

Mythili Sampathkumar
President Trump appointed Peter Navarro as head of a trade body knowing about his stance on China: Picture: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump has appointed Peter Navarro to a key position in the administration requiring expertise on, and an ability to work with, China. But, Mr Navarro appears to have neither.

Mr Navarro is the head of the National Trade Council, a body created by Mr Trump in the White House.

The agency’s purpose seems to broad-ranging: advising on strategy for trade agreement negotiations, evaluating US manufacturing and defence industrial capacities, and playing matchmaker for unemployed Americans to place them in skilled manufacturing jobs.

China’s obvious importance as the country’s biggest trade partner and manufacturing competitor is clear and an expertise on the country is no doubt important for the position.

However, as Foreign Policy reported, Mr Navarro speaks little Mandarin or Cantonese, is not a frequent visitor to the country or even the Asian-Pacific region, and does not have a wealth of manufacturing experience - his focus has largely been in public utilities.

Politico has reported that Mr Navarro also has a “a long and colourful history of China-bashing,” as well.

Mr Navarro, a former business professor at the University of California-Irvine, wrote a book in 2006 titled In The Coming China Wars. In the book he refers to China as “cheating” Americans and full of incompetent officials.

In a 2012 Netflix documentary called Death by China, Mr Navarro said China was “victimising” Americans and he begins the film by asking viewers to “help defend America and protect your family: don’t buy made in China.”

Scott Kennedy, Director of the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told The Independent that the real problem is Mr Navarro believing “himself to be the expert on these issues.”

He “may not believe he needs to have junior staff with China knowledge or draw on information and analysis from other parts of the government,” said Mr Kennedy.

Mr Kennedy said the issue is not whether he actually knows the language or culture but the “ideas and strategy, and [Mr Navarro] drawn a lot of criticism for his ideas and analysis.”

Despite the concern over Navarro’s stance on China, Charles Freeman III, managing director at Bower Group Asia and former assistant U.S. trade representative for China affairs, told CNBC that he thinks “we're headed into a very transactional period in the relationship [with China], and that's not necessarily a bad thing.”

He said Mr Navarro should follow the trajectory of his work, which is an increasingly “nuanced” understanding of the US-China relationship, especially in terms of trade.

David Spooner, partner in the corporate department and co-chair of the international trade practise group at Barnes & Thornburg told CNBC that the real question is for free traders: “'Does his appointment show the White House will really get tough on our trading partners and get aggressive about imposing tariffs on our trading partners, or should businesses breathe a sigh of relief because the authority of this position is unclear?“

Mr Kennedy said what the US government really needs are “experts to come in and challenge existing assumptions and policies…[but in] a two-way dialogue.”

“Everyone’s ideas and analysis — including [Mr Navarro’s]” should be “open for analysis and debate,” he explained.

Mr Kennedy noted the willingness to debate with thoughtful strategy and ideas is “the best way to ensure American economic policies, including those involving trade and China, [will] improve and are well executed.”