Trump in China: a study in contrasts.

October 25, 2017


In a world of uncertainty, the only sure thing about the upcoming visit of the US President Trump to China is that it will not be anything like the visit by President Nixon in January 1972.The secret and careful preparations and the strategic nature of the evident change in US policy towards the PRC are a world away from the mixed messages coming from Washington in 2017.


Like Nixon, Trump is signaling a readiness to abandon his aggressive campaign rhetoric about China but there is no clear sign yet of what his objectives in Beijing will really be.


The visit will come in a few weeks after the 19th CPC in Beijing which confirms the leadership and political line of President Xi Jinping. The stability of leadership in China contrasts with the situation in Washington D.C. The US President is at odds with his own entourage, in conflict with Republican Senators, isolated from Europe on several issues and combining bellicosity and confusion in his relations with China as well as with US allies in Asia.


A Split Administration.


This has been highlighted by the way President Trump has publicly distanced himself from the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Tillerson himself seems as uncertain about US policy as well as the strategic objectives of China. During his visit to Beijing last March, Secretary Tillerson told the Chinese that he was hoping for a relationship with “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” Chinese officials saw it as a recognition of their country’s equal status in the Pacific. Such words were no doubt welcome in China even as they caused surprise in Washington.


Even more embarrassment came during a more recent visit to China by Mr. Tillerson over the issue of how to deal with the nuclear threat from the DPRK. Tillerson said that US have requested to negotiate with DPRK and is still keeping in contact with DPRK. Within hours the US President used Twitter to tell the Secretary of State, and the world, that any such talks were a waste of time. The wording of the tweet praising Tillerson whilst totally undermining his position caused consternation not because of its content but for the way it revealed the vacuum at the heart of US policy. 


Improvisation in Place of Strategy.


History is aware of the diplomatic breakthrough set up by Kissinger and Chou En Lai before the Nixon visit. The two men had the confidence of their leaders as well as enormous historical knowledge and experience. Most observers would agree that Steve Bannon is no Henry Kissinger. He left his job in the White House in mid-august and has been leading a challenge to many Congressional Republicans, even some supported by Trump. Mr. Steve Bannon responded positively to an invitation to visit him in Zhongnanhai. Speaking in Hong Kong Bannon seemed to suddenly and unexpectedly abandon years of poisonous rhetoric about China. Even as recently as September 8th this year, he was quoted in the New York Times as arguing that: “A hundred years from now, this is what they’ll remember: what we did to confront China on its rise to world domination. China right now is Germany in1930, it’s on the cusp. It could go one way or the other.”


The New York Times also reported that some people close to Mr. Bannon are saying that he met recently with Dr. Kissinger to exchange views about the U.S relationship with China. Mr. Bannon says that he admires Kissinger and has read all his books. Even so, he clearly maintains his preference for confrontation over diplomacy.


Despite Tillerson’s soothing words, the US does not align itself with the concept of interdependence or “win-win” arrangements. It appears that, even if it was Wang Qishan who invited Bannon to meet him, the visit could be part of the preparations for the Trump visit. The objective on the US side would be a mega transaction covering a range of issues with China making concessions on the DPRK and the US giving ground on issues such as the South China Sea and trade. How likely this is, is anyone’s guess.


Bannon seems to think that economic issues are the key and presumably expects Chairman Xi to ignore the absurd comparisons between him and Hitler. Bannon may tell the world how much the President respects and admires his Chairman Xi but the reciprocation of such sentiments is most unlikely. Only a few weeks ago Bannon announced that China and the US are in an “economic war.” It is difficult to build trust on such rapidly changing foundations.


Administration at War with Congress.


A clue to the President’s objectives in China may be found in the series of blockages in relations with Congress on major policy issues.


In terms of relations with other countries it is the Senate that is in the lead. Nothing can be ratified without its support. It was therefore somewhat extraordinary that Senator Bob Corker, chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign relations have recently denounced the President in derogatory terms, going as far as telling the press that the President’s recklessness threatens ‘World War III’ (New York Times October8th, 2017). “He concerns me,” Senator Corker added. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.” The same goes for leaders and public opinion around the world.


Undermining the US leadership from within.


The President may think that talking toughly but acting more cautiously is a clever tactic, but the deliberate creation of such confusion is unlikely to prove fruitful.


Indeed, according to some observers, the address by President Trump to the U.N. General Assembly “marks the end of the global U.S. leadership.” As one expert put it “To the extent the ethos of cooperation is diminished, the prospect of conflict leading to violence and war is enhanced. Receding from the spirit of the post-war order brings the danger of pre-war disorder ever closer.”


The danger, therefore is that, in an indirect sense, Bannon is right: the world is in danger of returning to the 1930s. Unfortunately, the contagious effect of the “America first” rhetoric is the primary source of the growing global instability. In this sense Trump may be leading the world, but in a very dangerous direction.


The decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement has already set the tone, following on from the unilateral US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These were early examples of casual indifference by the US to the views and interests of allies in both Europe and Asia.


For some the apparent abandonment of a unipolar vision of the US leadership will be considered as a welcome development.


Addressing the US Congress on February 21st, 2017, Mr. Trump bluntly announced that “my job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.” He underlined that America respected the right of each country to choose its own path, even if democracy is the best. The softening of US rhetoric on human rights and the promotion of democracy has become manifest. This may reduce the tension with Beijing so accustomed to criticism from the West over its human rights record. More good news for China’s leaders, perhaps.


Most strange and difficult to interpret is the White House’s apparent readiness, even under pressure in the opposite direction from the U.S Congress, to soften the US policy towards Russia while maintaining aggressive language about China. In his dramatic UNGA speech in September the President denounced Iran and Syria but not their close ally Russia. He is presumably also aware of the key strategic alliance between China and Russia. This alliance means that any idea of grand Beijing-Washington bargain of the kind agreed upon by Mao and Nixon is out of the question.


Distancing from Europe.


When Nixon arrived in Beijing he came as the undisputed leader of the West with a strong domestic position ahead of the 1972 US election which he later won with a landslide majority. Trump arrives in the context of a deeply divided America and a profoundly uneasy western alliance. The NATO and G20 summits did not assuage European concerns about the direction of the US policy. It is, however, too easy to blame all the current problems on Trump himself.


Astute analysts have underlined the fact that the anti-globalization rhetoric that helped Trump defeat Hillary Clinton reflects divergent domestic policies designed to help those facing the negative social and economic consequences of enhanced competition. A study by the Brussels based Centre for European Policy Studies (Transatlantic Divergences in Globalization and the China Factor, May 2017) points out that European and American societies handle these issues differently and this influences their policies towards China.


“Between the US and the EU, recent policy attitudes vis-à-vis globalization has begun to diverge starkly. The contrast in views may well be rooted in divergences in their respective globalization performances and in the socio-economic impact on (some) workers in the US and the EU. …. The US has been less successful in recent globalization than the EU. Moreover, the relatively more flexible labor market in the US has insufficiently compensated workers for the negative short-term effects of global competition in goods markets, and the US trade adjustment and social systems have traditionally been relatively weak in recompensing the ‘losers’ even temporarily. In the EU, on the whole, negatively affected workers tend to be more systematically protected…. the contrast in globalization performance between the US and the EU holds true even more in the case of bilateral trade and investment relations with China.”


Trade and concerns about the US protectionism is not the only issue leading to concerns about the overall trajectory of the US policy.


The hostility of the President to any negotiation on the DPRK crisis, has been followed by action by the President to undermine the agreement on preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The EU has put enormous energy and commitment into making this historic agreement work and the disdainful dismissal of the deal by the White House reflects complete indifference to European views and interests. To ignore the involvement of China, and Russia, in this agreement also reflects an inability to look at such issues in their global context.


Coupled with an indifference to European economic interests and an evidently skeptical outlook towards the EU, the overall effect is to leave the US dangerously isolated from its European allies.


Again, when Mao and Nixon made friends they did so on the basis of common concerns about the Soviet Union which were broadly shared by leaders in western Europe. The relation between Beijing and Moscow is now so close that President Xi cannot be expected to change tack whatever Trump may have in mind for his big deal.


Making China great again?


In response to the rhetoric of the US President, China can now plausibly present itself as genuinely committed to cooperative globalization. Trump has replaced the multilateralism of the Obama pivot to Asia with a unilateralist policy, again leaving allies in the lurch. Both Presidents be, so far, unsuccessful and unnecessarily provocative towards China. Where China felt threatened by Obama’s containment policy it is now well placed to take quick advantage of Trump’s unilateralism. The result according to some observers will be to make China, not America “great again.” As one New York Times commentator put it “Now that Trump has rejected our would-be Asian allies, China is trying to put together a different trade pact with some of the same countries. If China succeeds, it will gain more sway in Asia.


Whilst there will be a great deal of attention in Europe for the next Xi-Trump meeting, the hope in the EU is that after the Party Congress a reinforced Chinese leadership will undertake the economic reforms and opening-up in such a way as to make possible real progress between Beijing and Brussels on such issues as the Bilateral Investment Treaty. Trump’s actions will most likely reinforce the understanding that China and the EU together have to show that interdependence and genuine win-win deals really can enhance economic progress. Similarly, both support the implementation of the Iran deal and the need for negotiations to defuse the war of words between Pyongyang and Washington.


No clash on values.


Trump’s abandonment of classical US positions taken hitherto by Republican and Democratic Presidents and strongly supported by the EU, comes as his Chinese counterpart also seems to have also changed tack. President Xi does not seem so clearly committed to the foreign policy of non-interference that has guided China since the days of Deng Xiao Ping. Deng famously said China should “hide its light and bide its time” on the world stage. President Xi seems to see things very differently and this is yet another confirmation of the difference between 2017 and 1972. Mao needed the US to end his country’s isolation and economic backwardness. Under President Xi, China sees itself as taking its rightful place in the governance of the world. China’s vision of a “community of common destiny” contrasts totally with the view expressed by two key advisers of the US President, namely that “the world is not a 'global community' but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage." Such simplistic characterizations of international relations were published in the Wall Street Journal in May of 2017 by National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn.


Despite the obvious difficulties of deciphering the current US strategy (if there is one) China will no doubt be trying to cooperate constructively with those in the Trump administration working to keep Trump from retreating further into his own world of denunciation and isolation.


Similarly, Trump should at least try in Beijing to develop an understanding with President Xi enabling both to think strategically and, as in their earlier meeting, to talk publicly and privately in a way that can reduce tensions and open the possibility of accommodating each other’s concerns.


For many years President Xi has talked of the US-China relations in terms of a new kind of great power relationship. This has never been endorsed by the US. The upcoming visit by President Trump provides the opportunity for both sides to show that, at least, that they have begun to understand each other.




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