The last time an American president visited China, the Chinese government didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet. When President Obama touched down in Beijing in September 2016, no ramp was provided for him and he had to descend via Air Force One’s own stairs. Though both sides were quick to assert that this wasn’t an intentional slight, the contrast between the cold shoulder given Obama and Donald Trump’s warm welcome in Beijing this week could not be greater.
Upon arrival, President Trump got the ramp, complete with a crowd of flag-wavers, and was soon whisked away for a tour and state dinner at Beijing’s Forbidden City, making him the first foreign leader ever to receive what China called a “state visit-plus.”
Trump’s visit comes against the backdrop of a newly assertive China, which has designs on constructing its own international economic order through the Belt and Road Initiative, is engaged in political-influence operations in the West, and seeks to become the uncontested hegemon of Asia as well as a global military power. If any of these developments are on President Trump’s mind, he’s not talking about it on Twitter.
In fact, it’s fair to say that Trump’s approach to China is muddled. He was an ardent China-basher on the campaign trail, and his inner circle has included China hawks like former presidential advisor Steve Bannon, economist Peter Navarro, and defense analyst Michael Pillsbury of The Hundred-Year Marathon fame. What’s more, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sounded downright bellicose about China during his confirmation hearing.
That said, Trump didn’t exactly inherit a strong China policy from his predecessors. While George W. Bush entered the White House intent on containing China, the events of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left Washington distracted and gave China room to expand its power. When Barack Obama took office, he, too, remained preoccupied by the War on Terror and disengaged from East Asia. The administration eventually attempted a “pivot to Asia” that failed completely. In the meantime, China upped the ante in the region by building islands in the South China Sea and launching its first aircraft carriers.
For all of Trump’s unpredictability, Xi Jinping probably has a clear picture of who he is dealing with, and he has the home-field advantage.
With ISIS on the run, Trump has devoted far more of his energy — and his tweets — to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Not surprisingly, the agenda for Trump’s Asia trip reflects his focus on the threat posed by Pyongyang. Trump talked about the issue in Japan and then capped off his South Korea trip with a Bush-like speech about North Korea to the South Korean National Assembly.
North Korea has no doubt dominated Trump’s discussions with Xi, too. Like the Obama administration, the Trump White House sees China as key to handling the Kim regime. China is Pyongyang’s main trading partner, has supplied the regime with missile technologies, and played host to thousands of North Korean students who were integral to developing the country’s nuclear and cyberwarfare capabilities.
During Thursday’s joint appearance in the Great Hall of the People, Trump asserted that China could “easily” fix the North Korea problem. However, it’s not at all certain that China could directly control the Kim regime even if it wanted to, since Kim Jong-un has excelled at killing members of his family with close ties to Beijing.
So is Trump likely to make any progress on the North Korean front? In public, Washington and Beijing are united in their desire to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. But short of a war, which China has no intention to join us in fighting, North Korea seems destined to hold onto its arsenal. This may lead Trump to assert that Japan and South Korea would be better off with their own nuclear weapons, a proposal China adamantly opposes.
Trump will doubtless press China on trade, which was also a theme of his Japan visit last week. Trump’s protectionism was weirdly anachronistic in that case, but is appropriate in the case of China.
In theory, as a protectionist, Trump has a freer hand to condemn Chinese practices that violate the rules and norms of the WTO, which range from dumping to forced technology transfer to forced joint ventures to blocking foreign vendors from government contracts to Internet censorship. But will he?
This time around, Trump actually praised China for its talent in amassing a trade surplus and blamed “past administrations” for the U.S. trade deficit. He mentioned forced technology transfer but didn’t dig much deeper on China’s trade abuses. Thus, the smart play by Beijing would be to sign a deal or two — e.g., the $250 billion proposal announced by the White House — and then let Trump tweet that he has done more than Obama to reduce the trade deficit.
For all of Trump’s unpredictability, Xi Jinping probably has a clear picture of who he is dealing with, and he has the home-field advantage. Beijing has long demonstrated skill at dazzling guests with the grand sweep of Chinese history and the sheer scale of Chinese development. Moreover, what Xi desires most from the U.S. is an admission of parity with China — what he calls the “new type of great power relations.”
On Thursday, Trump remarked that China and America could solve most or all of the world’s problems together. One wonders where he got that idea.
— Matthew Stinson has lived in China since 2004.