The long-anticipated departure of Rex Tillerson is finally upon us, and, as expected, CIA director Mike Pompeo will now have a shot at being US President Donald Trump’s secretary of state. Having already been confirmed by lawmakers as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, there is no reason to think he won’t be given a stamp of approval.
Pundits across the political spectrum have broadly welcomed the move. Though Pompeo is considered by some as ultra-conservative, with hawkish foreign-policy views outside the mainstream, the consensus is that he is closely aligned with the president, an essential quality for a secretary of state.
But what do his views mean for Washington’s ties with Beijing?
Some observers have already jumped to the conclusion that his foreign-policy prescriptions will weigh on an already stressed relationship.
“This is definitely not good news for Sino-US relations,” Zhang Zhexin, a research fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, told The South China Morning Post. “Once Pompeo is confirmed, it could cause a further deterioration in trade disputes between the two countries, and the tensions could extend into the security and diplomatic arenas.
“Pompeo has consistently held a very conservative position, and is likely to be even tougher on Sino-US relations than Trump, which to a certain extent will expand conflict between China and the US.”
But the SCMP’s headline, asking who is left for China to talk to now that Tillerson is gone, glossed over the fact that speaking with Tillerson was a lost cause. At least now, once a relationship with Pompeo is built, diplomats will know they are speaking with someone who has the president’s ear.
And then there is this little anecdote, reported by Bloomberg last October:
“We think that President Xi will come out of [the 19th Party Congress] in a dominant position with incredible capacity to do good around the world,” [Pompeo] said Thursday in Washington. He said the CIA’s “old-school guys who used to do Kremlin work” in the days of the Soviet Union are now tracking the political machinations surrounding the congress that’s held in China only once every five years.
“I hope they’ll take this opportunity to demonstrate that they truly are going to be globally important players in reducing a global threat like Kim Jong-un presents with his nuclear-weapons system, and the behaviors we’ve seen have been good,’’ Pompeo said at a conference of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Some time has passed since then, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has since taken his power grab a step or two further. Is Pompeo still so optimistic about the changes in Beijing? After cultivating a close relationship with Trump during his tenure as CIA director, he certainly has more sway than Rex Tillerson in conveying such a message to the president.
Pompeo’s comments in October were in reference to China’s cooperation on North Korea, suggesting the upcoming Trump-Kim summit may have big implications for the future of the US-China bilateral relationship.