Trump plays the flat­terer in China

National Post (Latest Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - Jonathan Lemire Anal­y­sis from Bei­jing

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump pulled his punches.

On the home turf of the ris­ing su­per­power he once de­clared was “rap­ing” the United States on trade, Trump on Thurs­day aban­doned his of­ten-pug­na­cious pos­ture.

He opted in­stead for pub­lic flat­tery and def­er­ence and chose to de­nounce past U. S. pres­i­dents for the eco­nomic im­bal­ance. And while he urged China to do more to pres­sure North Korea to aban­don its bur­geon­ing nu­clear weapons pro­gram, the vibe was more con­cil­ia­tory than con­fronta­tional.

Trump, who made China’s grow­ing eco­nomic might a bo­gey­men dur­ing his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, ap­peared set to de­liver a face- to- face scold­ing of Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping fol­low­ing an an­nounce­ment of new busi­ness deals be­tween U. S. and Chi­nese com­pa­nies.

Stand­ing just a few feet away from the Chi­nese pres­i­dent, Trump de­clared that the two na­tions “must im­me­di­ately ad­dress the un­fair trade prac­tices” that drive the trade deficit, along with bar­ri­ers to mar­ket ac­cess, forced tech­nol­ogy trans­fers and in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty theft.

“But I don’t blame China,” Trump said to au­di­ble gasps from some of the busi­ness lead­ers and jour­nal­ists from both coun­tries in The Great Hall of the Peo­ple.

“Af­ter all, who can blame a coun­try for be­ing able to take ad­van­tage of an­other coun­try for the ben­e­fit of its cit­i­zens?” he asked, to cheers from some of the Chi­nese con­tin­gent. “I give China great credit. But, in ac­tu­al­ity, I do blame past ad­min­is­tra­tions for al­low­ing this out-of­con­trol trade deficit to take place and to grow.”

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son said l ater that Trump’s com­ment had been “a lit­tle bit tongue-in-cheek” but that it none­the­less car­ried “a lot of truth.”

Ei­ther way, it was a far cry from Trump’s in­flam­ma­tory cam­paign rhetoric on China. Night af­ter night at ral­lies across the coun­try, he por­trayed him­self as a hard- nosed ne­go­tia­tor who would hold other coun­tries ac­count­able for dis­ad­van­tag­ing Amer­i­can work­ers.

“We can’t con­tinue to al­low China to rape our coun­try and that’s what they’re do­ing,” he said in May, 2016. “It’s the great­est theft in the his­tory of the world.”

While Trump made clear he wanted a more eq­ui­table trade re­la­tion­ship, he made no men­tion of pre­vi­ous cam­paign threats to la­bel China a cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tor, or im­pose dou­ble-digit tar­iffs or dra­co­nian trade mea­sures.

Trump took a sim­i­larly softer tack on North Korea, whose nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity he has la­belled “a threat to civ­i­liza­tion.”

Be­fore ar­riv­ing in Bei­jing, Trump had de­liv­ered a stern mes­sage to Xi, us­ing a speech in South Korea to call on China, North Korea’s big­gest trade part­ner, to do more to con­front and iso­late the rene­gade na­tion. But Trump took a gen­tler tone here, thank­ing Xi for his ef­forts and say­ing he’d been en­cour­aged by his con­ver­sa­tions.

“China can fix this prob­lem eas­ily. And quickly. And I am call­ing on China and your great pres­i­dent to hope­fully work on it very hard,” he said.

Den­nis Wilder, for­mer CIA deputy as­sis­tant direc­tor for East Asia and the Pa­cific, said Trump’s softer ap­proach could be a smart strat­egy. “I’m cer­tain the pres­i­dent was far more can­did and di­rect in pri­vate on trade and Korea. Es­tab­lish­ing the per­sonal ties has been im­por­tant in U. S.- China re­la­tions ever since Mao (Ze­dong) and (Richard) Nixon,” he said.

Bon­nie Glaser at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies said Trump’s ap­par­ent strat­egy “is to flat­ter Xi and praise the Chi­nese peo­ple, hop­ing to build enough good will to pro­duce pos­i­tive out­comes.”

She was skep­ti­cal it would work, say­ing China would com­ply more fully with UN sanc­tions on North Korea, but is un­likely to cut off oil.

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