Trump plays the flatterer in China
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.