Trump Era

Where Will Trump Land on China?

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Manufacturing in China. Photo: AFP/Getty

“China feels cheated by Trump many times — I think many countries that trade with the U.S. would understand,” said Wang Wen, a professor at Renmin University, in Beijing, who advises Chinese policymakers. “If he really wants conflict, then we’re not scared of conflict with the United States. We’re scared of not having channels to talk to the United States.”

This Washington Post article, reports on some cases that illustrate the difficulty Chinese officialdom is having trying to understand in which direction the U.S. political wind blows. “They do not seem to want to talk,” said Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, complaining to a group of American business executives about how Beijing feels betrayed by an oscillating White House. “We don’t know if they’re uncoordinated, or if they’re negotiating in bad faith,” said Wang in September.

What throws the Chinese into confusion is Trump’s erratic behavior, which hides what seems to be the only consistent policy this president has. As the Washington Post put it: “The communications breakdown reflects the plight of two countries in the midst of profound internal changes, struggling to resolve a conflict that already is slowing the global economy and could soon worsen. Though Trump repeatedly promised to revolutionize U.S. trade policy, Chinese leaders have been slow to grasp the implications of his presidency and even slower to recognize that their traditional American contacts cannot speak for the disruptive leader in the Oval Office.”

We all remember when, two years ago, President-Elect Donald Trump took a call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. It was well before the Russian probe dominated the political stage. The phone call with Tsai Ing-wen was the first disruptive act of newly-elected president. It was an impressively bold and provocative act, as I wrote in an earlier piece, analyzing the call and Trump’s reaction when the world erupted to his breach of protocol. Trump doubled down when faced with criticism, saying: “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.” And I wrote:

It’s fascinating. One does not expect that this disruptive and erratic figure would manifest such a level of coherence on what many consider to be the most critical issue concerning the U.S.’s future international relations. And yet Trump’s logic sounds pure and simple: how can one oppose a conversation between the leaders of two countries that have been heavily involved in arms deals for decades? Before an arms deal, I assume that both sides have to exchange intelligence, consult each other on the international security situation, do training of military personnel and so on and so on. All this requires regular contacts; Trump seems to say when he defends his phone call.

It was a provocative but interesting first move in rethinking America’s relations with Asian powers; nobody back then, knew where this would lead. If intentional, Trump’s move might have become a vital chip to bargain with at the long-awaited negotiation table. And if played well, the strategy would have positive results for both sides — and for the world, we reasoned at that time. I never thought, however, that Trump a visionary or strategist. He is a real estate tycoon using the negotiating chips and refereeing the game to obtain a better price. Trump is an outsider who has lent himself to politics for a brief, transitional period of time, disrupting the status quo with emotional, out-of-the-box thinking.

In the case of China, Trump’s early moves could have turned out well. But, as I wrote then, the risk of a bad play was high, and his “strategy” could easily, perhaps irreparably, become a boomerang. For now, it looks like the game is going well for Trump. After Xi Jinping’s personal visit to Mar-a-Lago, in April 2017, the two presidents–while sharing the secrets of America’s bombing in Syria and then inhaling a magnificent chocolate cake–became friends. Trump paid an official visit to China that November. This time, there was no talk of bombings, nor any sweets, as the two most powerful men in the world sat down for tea. The Imperial Palace in November is a forbidding place, grey and cold. Trump looked awkward in such an austere space. Normally surrounded by the gold and glimmer of his ostentatious properties, his reserved face in the Forbidden City asked, is this it, is this all? Compared to Mar-a-Lago, where one can play golf all year round, Beijing’s cold and bleak setting seemed like Trump’s anti-climax.

For a few months, after the cold encounter, there was nothing much going on between Washington and Beijing. It was a period dominated by the theatrical North Korean menace of a nuclear attack, capped by Pyongyang’s dramatic invitation to the new president to meet and talk. By “resolving” the at least partially made-up nuclear crisis, putting Pyongyang on the back burner, Washington was able to turn again towards China.

Except for President Trump, this was a different team. No longer were the young Jared Kushner and his wife, Trump’s daughter Ivanka, part of the negotiating team. Hesitant former businessman and Secretary of State at the time, Rex Tillerson, was also held back in DC. Spearheading Trump’s China team were former CIA Director Mike Pompeo and, the toughest of them all, John Bolton. And with advisor Peter Navarro, the China specialist who despises China, Trump no longer needed his generals.

As the Wall Street Journal summarized, noting  the events of the last few weeks, the relationship between the U.S. and China is entering a new and testier phase:

Vice President Mike Pence last week gave a blistering speech on U.S.-China relations, saying “the United States has adopted a new approach to China” with the message to China: “This president will not back down.

On Wednesday, the Treasury Department announced new rules targeting China that tighten national security reviews of foreign investment. On the same day, the Justice Department said it had brought a Chinese intelligence operative arrested in Belgium to the U.S. to face charges he conspired to steal trade secrets from GE Aviation and others. It was the first time prosecutors publicly identified someone in custody as a Chinese intelligence officer.

The Energy Department announced Thursday heightened controls on nuclear technology exports to China. The administration also signed off recently on Justice Department directives that force a pair of Chinese state media outlets to register as foreign agents.

The speed of the U.S. shift to a more confrontational China strategy has surprised many Chinese officials and sent Beijing scrambling to stabilize the relationship, with Washington the disrupter, analysts said.

As the experts noted, the U.S. is getting tougher and tougher on China as they advise Beijing to stay cool-headed because a new Cold War is not in China’s interest. But Beijing was really upset last month when the U.S. imposed sanctions on a China for purchasing Russian SU-35 jet fighters and equipment related to its S-400 anti-aircraft missile system.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, speaking recently to the Council on Foreign Relations, said they tried to push back the aggressive Trump administration by claiming that U.S. fears of China seeking to obtain global hegemony are a serious strategic misjudgment.

Here is how Washington sees it, according to a senior administration official: “Where this ends is a trade deal. Xi is starting to look at this and say, ‘Wow, Trump is doing the things he said he’s going to do,’ and realize that he has to get to work.’”

Hopefully, the WSJ is right. China is trying to achieve technological supremacy with the project known as “Made in China in 2015,” as the Council on Foreign Relations reported. But, as the think tank observes, China’s intention with this initiative is not so much to join the ranks of high-tech economies like Germany, the United States, South Korea, and Japan, as to replace them altogether. “Made in China 2025” calls for achieving “self-sufficiency” through technology substitution while becoming a “manufacturing superpower” that dominates the global market in critical high-tech industries. That could be a problem for countries that rely on exporting high-tech products, or the global supply chain for high-tech components.

Trump is trying to do the same thing. The administration would like American companies to move away from China. Some of them are trying to diversify production to other low-cost countries.

But after decades of economic integration with China, most American companies are largely stuck where they are, with supply lines and markets organized around their presence there. Axios recently warned the administration about U.S. vulnerability, saying that problems will arise if Trump tries to bring U.S. allies in Asia into the same decoupling policy. Quoting Elisabeth Economy, an expert on China at the Council on Foreign Relations, Axios writes: “To the extent that the security of the United States is vulnerable to others’ choices of technology, the Trump administration may well force these countries and multinationals to make a choice between the United States and China.”

The U.S., too, is walking a thin line in Asia. If Washington tries to force its Asian allies to choose, many of them might choose China, since that is where their economic future resides. Bluntness is not everything. With China it never was, writes Elisabeth Economy:

Rather than a frontal assault on U.S. leadership, Xi has articulated his vision of a ‘community of shared destiny,’ which is premised on mutual cooperation, fairness and equality — a “new” approach that “supersedes” an outdated Western model. While benign-sounding, this community concept means nothing less than the end of the U.S.-led system of alliances. As one Chinese official told me, such alliances are “anachronistic” and “not suitable for the contemporary time. The shaky commitment of President Trump to America’s alliance structures has provided welcome support to Chinese diplomats and scholars tasked with selling Xi’s idea. Nonetheless, the Chinese leader has undermined his own soft sell with his military assertiveness in the South China Sea and willingness to adopt coercive economic policies toward South Korea and Taiwan, among other nations.

Things are complex in today’s world. In order to survive or prevail, one should be able to multitask. The latter does not seem to be a star quality of the 45th. And the question is whether the blustering American administration might miss messages coming from Beijing. Diplomacy requires being attuned subtlety, and it’s dangerous to overlook the signals. Remember when the Nixon administration in 1970 did not understand that Edgar Snow s standing next to Mao Zedong on Tiananmen balustre celebrating Chinese national day? It was before ping-pong diplomacy, during the U.S. attempts to get Chinese help to get them out of Vietnam. Snow was the Chinese green light to Americans to go ahead with efforts to open the diplomatic channels with Beijing. Since Washington did not get it, more time was lost and more soldiers got killed in Vietnam.

Times are different today. The signals, too, are different. China should be different, considering that it has achieved a more active role on this planet — though one that has left many inside and out ambivalent. As Economy reports, a European China scholar recently said: “Never have I seen such a successful country in which so many people who benefit the most all want to leave.”

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