Bro­mance is in the air on Trump’s Asian charm tour

Find­ing a res­o­lu­tion to the North Korean cri­sis and ad­dress­ing hefty trade im­bal­ances are main ob­jec­tives

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Clif­ford Coo­nan in Bei­jing

The tweets started soon af­ter Air Force One touched down at Bei­jing’s dragon-themed in­ter­na­tional air­port, where US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his wife, Me­la­nia, were greeted by hun­dreds of fran­ti­cally flag-wav­ing chil­dren and the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army band.

“Look­ing for­ward to a full day of meet­ings with Pres­i­dent Xi and our del­e­ga­tions to­mor­row. THANK YOU for the beau­ti­ful wel­come China! @ FLOTUS Me­la­nia and I will never for­get it!”

Twit­ter, along with most other in­ter­na­tional so­cial me­dia, may be banned here but clearly the Great Fire­wall of China was not go­ing to get in the way of Trump’s favourite mode of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Find­ing a res­o­lu­tion to the North Korean nu­clear cri­sis and ad­dress­ing hefty trade im­bal­ances with Asian coun­tries were the main ob­jec­tives for this Asian visit, the long­est since Ge­orge HW Bush in 1991, a mis­sion chiefly re­mem­bered be­cause Bush Se­nior vom­ited into the lap of then-Ja­panese prime min­is­ter Ki­ichi Miyazawa.

In con­trast, this five-na­tion Asian visit has been largely gaffe-free, with Trump tak­ing a hard line on North Korea with­out re­sort­ing to in­sults and push­ing an “open-for-busi­ness” mes­sage that has won over lead­ers of some of the world’s big­gest trad­ing na­tions.

The tim­ing for Trump couldn’t have been bet­ter. Ja­panese prime min­is­ter Shinzo Abe had just se­cured a fresh, stronger man­date from a snap elec­tion. Moon Jae-in in South Korea con­tin­ues to en­joy strong sup­port af­ter com­ing to power this year. And Xi Jin­ping has just staged a suc­cess­ful Com­mu­nist Party congress that en­shrined him as China’s most pow­er­ful leader since Chair­man Mao Ze­dong.

Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan whisked the Trumps off to the For­bid­den City, the old im­pe­rial palace fronted by a gi­ant por­trait of the Great Helms­man Mao, fac­ing Tianan­men Square.

Xi doesn’t golf, in fact he dis­ap­proves of what the com­mu­nist cadres call green opium, but Trump won him over by play­ing a video for his hosts of his six-year-old grand­daugh­ter Ara­bella Kush­ner per­form­ing Chi­nese clas­sic verse, in­clud­ing a Con­fu­cian text that is a main­stay in schools here, and an­cient po­ems by Li Bai.

Xi and his wife had met Ara­bella in Mar-a-Lago a few months back, and China’s supreme leader re­sponded en­thu­si­as­ti­cally say­ing the lit­tle girl would get an “A+” for her Chi­nese skills.

They said Ara­bella was a star in China, which is true. Chi­nese so­cial me­dia was be­side it­self with joy.

‘Special gift’

“She is an an­gel show­ing the friend­ship be­tween the US and China,” wrote Yuchen on WeChat, while an­other fan, Si­pailuo, spoke of Ara­bella’s “special gift”. “I love it, it is so mean­ing­ful to both coun­tries.”

Trump spoke of his “friend­ship” with Xi, forged over choco­late cake at Mar-a-Lago. “We have had sev­eral con­ver­sa­tions about our com­mon goals and in­ter­ests. Be­yond that, we talk of­ten. There is a very good chem­istry be­tween the two of us, be­lieve me.”

In Ja­pan, there was mu­tual praise, fist bumps and bro­mance ga­lore as the two close al­lies met. Trump ap­pears to en­joy the com­pany of a “strong man”, and Ja­pan’s prime min­ster Shinzo Abe sees him­self as such. He even keeps Trump’s book The Art of the Deal by his bed.

The re­la­tion­ship with Abe is easier be­cause he likes to play golf. Even Abe’s tum­ble into a bunker dur­ing their trip to the links did noth­ing to weaken the strong re­la­tion­ship.

In South Korea, Trump mod­er­ated his ear­lier vit­riol against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – no ref­er­ences to Lit­tle Rock­et­man – but he still com­mu­ni­cated a very forthright mes­sage and ex­pressed strong sup­port for Moon.

His tough talk on the North went down very well in South Korea.

“Today I hope I speak not only for our coun­tries, but for all civilised na­tions when I say to the North: Do not un­der­es­ti­mate us. And do not try us,” he said, be­fore re­ceiv­ing a stand­ing ova­tion at South Korea’s na­tional as­sem­bly.

The US-China re­la­tion­ship is ul­ti­mately the key to the whole Asian tour, be­cause China is the emerg­ing power and China is the US’s big­gest trad­ing part­ner.

Fun­da­men­tal

Ja­pan and South Korea are both US al­lies in a fun­da­men­tal sense. The se­cu­rity of Asia post- sec­ond World War is pred­i­cated on the US com­mit­ment to de­fend Ja­pan, South Korea, Tai­wan and the Philip­pines.

“Trump is nearly a dream come true to China, though one that car­ries great risk,” said Steve Tsang, di­rec­tor of the Soas China In­sti­tute in London.

“Trump’s big ego makes him sus­cep­ti­ble to what the Chi­nese do best, in pro­vid­ing the most so­phis­ti­cated or elab­o­rate hos­pi­tal­i­ties. Trump is treated as a king, as Trump liked to call Xi. The ‘ king’ is made to feel on top of the world.”

Tsang be­lieves that Xi will gloss over any ir­ri­ta­tions from Trump, be­cause his goal is to make Trump feel like a king and thereby dis­tract him from the thornier is­sues of North Korea and trade.

A big set- piece dur­ing the China leg of the visit was a cer­e­mony in the Great Hall of the Peo­ple, pre­ceded by a mil­i­tary pa­rade on Tianan­men Square, where mem­o­ran­dums of un­der­stand­ing for deals worth more than $250 bil­lion (¤215 bil­lion) were signed.

Dozens of mid­dle-aged white men in dark suits were sum­moned to the stage to sign deals with an equiv­a­lent num­ber of mid­dle- aged Chi­nese men in dark suits. The only women in ev­i­dence were the de­mure, re­spect­ful young women who filled the glasses and moved the fur­ni­ture around.

Mod­er­ated his ap­proach

Even here Trump mod­er­ated his ap­proach. He took aim at China’s enor­mous trade sur­plus with the US, but said he “didn’t blame China”. The trade im­bal­ance was the fault of pre­vi­ous US ad­min­is­tra­tions, he said.

The Chi­nese are em­brac­ing Trump, but they also fear his mer­cu­rial qual­i­ties, and shud­der at what could hap­pen if his Twit­ter- finger gets giddy. In an edi­to­rial in the English- lan­guage edi­tion of the Global Times tabloid, pub­lished by the same group that pub­lishes Com­mu­nist Party or­gan Peo­ple’s Daily, there was praise for his “prag­matic” ap­proach.

“He hasn’t used the is­sue of hu­man rights to make trouble for China so far, and this means the Sino-US re­la­tion­ship can fo­cus on sub­stan­tive mat­ters,” it said.

“But there are still con­cerns that Trump may at some time tweet some­thing em­bar­rass­ing about China. It could hap­pen be­cause Trump is straight­for­ward, and ob­vi­ously has some grudges to­ward China.”

Trump is in south­east Asia now for re­gional sum­mits in Viet­nam and the Philip­pines, and given the US op­po­si­tion to China’s ter­ri­to­rial am­bi­tions in the South China Sea, the re­la­tion­ship is sure to get com­pli­cated again.

Af­ter the first day of the China leg, Trump came across as al­most coy in his tweet to Xi and his wife (even if Xi is for­bid­den from ac­cess­ing Twit­ter as a state em­ployee).

“On be­half of @FLOTUS Me­la­nia and I, THANK YOU for an un­for­get­table af­ter­noon and evening at the For­bid­den City in Bei­jing, Pres­i­dent Xi and Madame Peng Liyuan. We are look­ing for­ward to re­join­ing you to­mor­row morn­ing!”

All that was lack­ing is a “Gnite” and some heart emoti­cons.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Chi­nese pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping par­tic­i­pate in a wel­come cer­e­mony at the Great Hall of the Peo­ple in Bei­jing. PHO­TO­GRAPH: AP/ANDREW HARNIK

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