Tea Leaf Nation

Trump’s Top China Expert Isn’t a China Expert

Peter Navarro doesn't speak Chinese, and has scant in-country experience. Should that matter?

University of California at Irvine Economics Professor Peter Navarro, head of White House National Trade Council nominee for president-elect Donald Trump, arrives in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. A top congressional ally to Trump said Thursday that Republicans will repeal Obamacare, including some funding provisions, quickly while a replacement plan is due in "six to eight months." Photographer: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pool via Bloomberg
University of California at Irvine Economics Professor Peter Navarro, head of White House National Trade Council nominee for president-elect Donald Trump, arrives in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. A top congressional ally to Trump said Thursday that Republicans will repeal Obamacare, including some funding provisions, quickly while a replacement plan is due in "six to eight months." Photographer: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pool via Bloomberg

Peter Navarro has run for office five times, and lost five times. Over the course of his career, he has morphed from registered Republican, to Independent, to Democrat, and back to Republican — whatever it took to give him an edge, according to those in San Diego’s political circles, where Navarro forged a dubious reputation. The economics professor with a Harvard Ph.D. had much bigger ambitions than the quiet, tenured life he led for years. Like his current boss, President Donald Trump, he loved media attention and sought political fame.

He’s finally gotten it. Navarro closely shaped Trump’s strident rhetoric on China during the presidential campaign; now he holds a potentially critical role as head of the Trump-created National Trade Council at the White House. But the totality of Navarro’s curriculum vitae reflects someone with greater expertise in public utilities than the complex workings of the Asia-Pacific. He does not appear to speak much Chinese, and has not, by all accounts, spent any significant time in the country, nor is he a frequent visitor. Well-regarded China analysts are almost universal in their derision of his views. What happens when the White House’s top China expert is not — at least according to the yardsticks commonly used in foreign policy circles — really a China expert?

The answer could be crucial. Trade is the foundation for almost every other aspect of this most important geopolitical relationship in the world. “As soon as you have cheating by one country, the model breaks down,” Navarro said during an almost hour-long talk with Foreign Policy. “As soon as there is currency manipulation or currency misalignments, the model breaks down. In either case, one country wins at the expense of the other. Any high school student will understand that.”

Navarro, professionally reborn as a China analyst, bases his ideology on viewing China as America’s main combatant in a zero-sum economic game. He bemoans the country’s entry to the World Trade Organization as one of the biggest mistakes the United States has made, believing Beijing does not play by the rules. He has called China out for its mercantilist strategy driven by its state-owned enterprises and subsidies, much of which, he believes, have contributed to the decline of manufacturing jobs in the United States. Despite prevailing convention, he maintains that China is still manipulating its currency. (That was previously the case, but most economists agree the renminbi is no longer undervalued.) Together with Trump, Navarro tore apart the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He has said repeatedly that he wants to slap 43 percent tariffs on Chinese imports. (Trump has spoken separately of a 45 percent tariff.)

Since Navarro’s sudden emergence on the national political scene, he has resembled a gate-crasher to China experts who have spent years, even decades, forging their reputations. More than a dozen top China specialists reached for this article — including those from academia, think tanks, the private sector, and those formerly in government — said they did not know Navarro or had little interaction with him, and only heard of him after he catapulted onto the scene as a member of Trump’s economic team. Professors in Southern California — those most likely to have had a chance to meet Navarro, who has taught at the University of California, Irvine for years — said he made no effort to connect with China experts, whether economists, political scientists, or historians. “Navarro is not known in any China circles,” said James McGregor, a former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.

“My recollection is that he generally avoided people who actually knew something about the country,” said Kenneth Pomeranz, a professor of Chinese history at the University of Chicago and formerly at UC Irvine. Patrick Chovanec, chief strategist at Silvercrest Asset Management and a frequent commentator on the Chinese economy, told FP, “The China that [Navarro] describes in Death by China bears only a tangential relationship to the China that I lived in for a decade.” McGregor said Navarro’s books and his documentary “have close to zero credibility with people who know the country,” and are filled with “hyperbole, inaccuracies” and a “cartoonish caricature of China that he puts out.”

The hyperbole McGregor refers to are mainly found in three of Navarro’s books: Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World; Death by China: Confronting the Dragon — A Global Call to Action (which was accompanied by a film documentary of the same name); and The Coming China Wars: Where They Will Be Fought and How They Can Be Won. It is fair to call all three polemical, if readable.

In Death by China, Navarro warns purchasers of Chinese goods, “If you fancy death by explosion, fire, or electric shock, you can choose from a wide selection of booby-trapped extension cords, fans, lamps, overheating remote controls, exploding cell phones, and self-immolating boom boxes.” At the start of another section on China’s pollution problems, Navarro sets the scene, declaring, “It’s Big Brother Meets Silent Spring.” He even takes to calling China “Dragonland.”

When asked about his reputation, Navarro referred me to the acknowledgments section of his latest book. “You have more than 30 of the top China hands in the world, across the spectrum, that I interviewed,” he said. “How can anybody credibly say that I avoided anybody? That’s just malicious spin.” Interviews, of course, aren’t tantamount to endorsements, and I was unable to find an interview subject of Navarro’s willing to comment for this article.

For most China experts, significant in-country time forges their interest and expertise. Not so Navarro, who said he turned his attention to China in the mid-2000s, when he started noticing that his former business school students had lost their jobs. He launched a research project on job losses when China’s trade surplus and undervaluation were objectively at their sharpest, and concluded that China was a major culprit.

Gordon Chang, a controversial figure among China-watchers who has been warning for more than 15 years that the country’s collapse is imminent, was the only China analyst I managed to find who could fairly be called a Navarro booster. Chang wrote the foreword to Navarro’s book on China’s military might, but even he didn’t agree with Navarro on everything.

“You will get from me no defense of 45 percent tariffs and charges of ongoing currency manipulation,” Chang told FP. Nor does Chang support the U.S. withdrawal from the TPP, which he called “a self-inflicted debacle.”

The criticism from China experts mirrors the critiques of Navarro’s economic views. Profiles in outlets like the New Yorker and Vox have suggested that Navarro is unsupported by theory and isolated from mainstream economic thought. For his part, Navarro thinks most economists are isolated from reality. “Ninety-nine of the 100 people who criticize me on economic grounds don’t teach economics like I do,” he said. “This is an area of my core expertise, and I’m being criticized by people who have not taught the theoretical model and who have no clue why that theory has invariably broken down in the real world.”

Similarly, Chang thinks economists misunderstand Navarro because they misunderstand China. “China has a very narrow view of trade. They’ve always viewed it as ‘I win, you lose,’” he said. “[The Chinese] view trade in the same way Navarro does.”

Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society, recently met Navarro. Like most China experts interviewed, Schell disagrees with Navarro’s antagonistic approach and thinks he fails to appreciate the sensitivity of U.S.-China relations. But Schell was otherwise more generous than others. “I know Navarro horrifies economists, but I am not an economist,” he said. “One has to acknowledge that he’s gotten China’s attention. He’s reminded them that they are reaping the bitter harvest of their own recklessness that has created an increasingly un-level and antagonistic playing field.”

Schell also offered a more charitable take on Navarro’s isolation from China-watching circles. “In his view, China specialists have been sleepwalking through our relations with China,” he said. “And he has asked again and again: What have we actually gotten out of the relationship?”

McGregor said Navarro “deserves some credit for pointing out that China’s been outmaneuvering the United States and the world for at least a decade,” but McGregor added that it is difficult to accept that message when “it is stirred into a whole mix of malarkey.”

Navarro believes that begrudging acknowledgment from critics shows how, “as time has gone by, I have looked more and more like Paul Revere than the alarmist my critics have sought to portray.”

Navarro’s greatest vindication, of course, has been joining Trump’s administration. The two men first connected in 2011, after Navarro learned that Trump had read The Coming China Wars; later, Trump gave Navarro’s documentary a good review. When Trump launched his presidential run, Navarro flew to New York, and ended up helping out on the campaign trail. He said he had not expected to end up in Washington. “It just all happened organically.”

Navarro may have come to Washington from apparent obscurity, but San Diego’s political community remembers Navarro clearly, with a mixture of fear and loathing. “Nobody in town can believe Peter Navarro is where he is,” said Lisa Ross, Navarro’s own press officer for several of his five unsuccessful campaigns.

Navarro launched his 1992 mayoral bid after leading a grassroots group that fought what he perceived as overdevelopment in San Diego. He had become particularly attuned to the influence of special-interest groups from his work as an academic researching public utilities and rent control. He relished a good fight, and considered himself a man of the people. He positioned himself as the anti-establishment outsider. He was confident, brash, and had a knack for interacting with the press. “Peter could get the media to show up on a dime,” Ross said. “They loved him.”

Facing an opponent who had recently divorced her husband after he was convicted of laundering cocaine money, Navarro slammed Susan Golding in one of the most negative campaigns in the city’s memory. “He was extremely good at identifying a whipping boy and exploiting that,” said Tom Shepard, Golding’s chief campaign strategist. Navarro painted Golding, who had already spent years in local politics, as part of the rotten ruling class. In the final televised debate before voting day, he attacked Golding so nastily that she started tearing up. Instead of relenting, he doubled down, and accused Golding of acting. Voters were not pleased; Navarro lost the race by a slim margin.

Navarro would go on to run for city councilman, county supervisor, and finally congressman in 1996. This time, he was badly trounced. “Peter’s negatives were so high, there wasn’t any way we were gonna win that race,” Ross said.

Many who know Navarro and spoke with FP pointed to similarities between him and Trump. Both are explosive and engaging, single-minded and self-absorbed, and possess an ability to play to the camera and come up with a zinger. “I think he and Trump deserve each other,” said Kim Cox, chair of the county Democratic Party from that period.

“It’s hard to have an ego of Trumpian proportions,” said Larry Remer, Navarro’s chief strategist for several campaigns. “But Peter definitely felt that he had a lot to contribute.”

Remer nonetheless cautions against equating Navarro with his current boss. “The Peter I knew has no relationship to the crude, lewd, racist, anti-feminist Donald Trump. He was never those things and I do not believe he is today.”

It’s clear that Navarro was a controversial figure who wanted to win badly and was willing to hurt feelings along the way. In fairness, none of that need exclude the possibility that Navarro was also sincere in his views and genuine in his wish to serve the public. There’s evidence for that, too. Navarro was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand in the early 1970s. He speaks of that time with deep fondness. Fellow volunteers remember him as a serious, unflappable young man and an attentive listener.

That public spirit — from his Peace Corps days and academic studies on job loss — is still present. Navarro continues to believe he is fighting for the little guy. In a speech on March 6, he laid into those who defend Chinese manufacturing because it provides Americans with cheaper goods. “This seems to be an elitist, out-of-touch argument. It assumes that the poorest segments of our society would rather have cheap products than a good job and a good paycheck.”

Along those lines, Navarro’s office is acting as a “SWAT team” to help manufacturers — and ranchers, farmers, and workers — by identifying instances of unfair trade practices carried out by foreign companies. The mandate is not China-specific, but Navarro said he’s looking at the impact of Beijing’s new cybersecurity law, which requires all companies, foreign and domestic, to store key information collected in China on servers in the country. In his view, this vastly disadvantages American cloud service companies while propping up local ones, such as Alibaba Cloud. Navarro wants reciprocity. “Alibaba Cloud will have a monopoly of the Chinese market even as it can freely enter our market,” he said. “We’d be allowing a Chinese company to come into the United States, even as China is pushing out Amazon.”

The SWAT team role may be a good fit for Navarro. “On larger trade policy, he seems to have more attitude than aptitude,” McGregor said. “So maybe keeping him busy on individual cases and using him as an attack dog on a local level might work best.”

The question is whether Navarro’s pugnacity will again overpower his public-mindedness. Recent reports suggest that Navarro is being sidelined in the White House, and that former Goldman Sachs CEO Gary Cohn of the National Economic Council, who has assembled a powerhouse staff and is generally more moderate on China, may be on the ascendant. Some whisper that Navarro and his small team may soon move to the Commerce Department, to be overseen by Secretary Wilbur Ross, who before the presidential campaign frequently praised Chinese culture. Navarro would not comment on these reports.

But he appears aware of the paradox that his political identity has produced. In San Diego Confidential, an irreverent and highly readable book reflecting on his years running for office, Navarro includes several harsh self-assessments, including one moment of truth after his congressional run. “I lost the race because I had run too many times and offended too many people in the process,” he wrote. “As a result, I was never able to do the only thing I have ever wanted to do in politics — fight for issues that really matter.”

Image Credit: Bloomberg/Contributor

Melissa Chan is a national and foreign affairs reporter who previously worked as a broadcast correspondent for Al Jazeera. She is a collaborator with the Global Reporting Centre and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.