High praise and power games

Don­ald Trump treated Xi Jin­ping like a much-ad­mired old friend but he may not get much in re­turn, writes Emily Rauhala

Weekend Herald - - World -

When Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump landed in Bei­jing on Wed­nes­day, he was whisked through quiet streets to the For­bid­den City, where he got a his­tory les­son from Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and caught an opera at the Pavil­ion of Pleas­ant Sounds.

It was an apt opener. Af­ter twice tweet­ing out his grat­i­tude, Trump on Thurs­day met Xi at the tightly guarded Great Hall of the Peo­ple where, sur­rounded by cor­po­rate chief ex­ec­u­tives, he over­saw the sign­ing of US$250 bil­lion ($360b) in trade deals and con­tin­ued to praise his au­thor­i­tar­ian host.

The two-day trip was or­ches­trated to project the im­age of re­mote and ab­so­lute power that Xi en­joys and Trump ad­mires. There were no protests, no ques­tions from the press, no or­di­nary peo­ple — noth­ing but pleas­antries and sooth­ing tones.

Trump brought up North Korea but said Xi could solve it. He raised the trade deficit but said it was not China’s fault. He said the Chi­nese peo­ple are very proud of Xi.

Af­ter all the sweet talk, the United States is ex­pect­ing a lot in re­turn from Bei­jing — but Xi, in the as­cen­dant, may not budge. That could lead to dis­ap­point­ment in the US and fric­tion down the road in the re­la­tion­ship.

While both sides were pleased to see a high-stakes visit end with­out in­ci­dent, there are ques­tions about what was gained and what, per­haps, was lost.

“Talk about em­brac­ing the Lenin­ist po­lit­i­cal sys­tem,” said Evan Medeiros, who heads the Eura­sia Group’s cov­er­age of the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion and was the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil’s Asia di­rec­tor in the Obama Ad­min­is­tra­tion. “In Trump’s ef­fort to in­gra­ti­ate him­self with Xi, is he in­ad­ver­tently ced­ing Amer­i­can pri­macy to China?”

The US, Medeiros ar­gued, is the an­chor power in Asia be­cause of the rules, in­sti­tu­tions and val­ues it rep­re­sents. “Trump fun­da­men­tally calls that into ques­tion when he’s prais­ing the Chi­nese po­lit­i­cal sys­tem — and not get­ting much in ex­change.”

Xi, an­a­lysts said, may have cal­cu­lated that the re­ally tough ne­go­ti­a­tions with the US, on a range of is­sues, still lie ahead — and that China can play a strong hand. Un­til then, he can sit tight.

“My ex­pec­ta­tion is that not much will come from China,” said Max Bau­cus, un­til the be­gin­ning of this year the US am­bas­sador to China. “And that is go­ing to put Trump in a bit of a box.”

Wil­liam Zarit, chair­man of the Amer­i­can Cham­ber of Com­merce in China, ap­plauded the trade deals but also won­dered what comes next, whether the Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion would be able to use the mo­men­tum to tackle tougher is­sues in the USChina eco­nomic re­la­tion­ship, such as mar­ket ac­cess for US firms in China.

“The ques­tion re­mains: What is be­ing done about these struc­tural is­sues?” he said. “We hope to see proac­tive mea­sures by the Chi­nese to ad­dress the im­bal­ances in the re­la­tion­ship, as pres­sure is build­ing in the US to take re­ac­tive re­cip­ro­cal ac­tions.”

As a can­di­date, Trump of­ten lashed out at Bei­jing, blam­ing the Chi­nese econ­omy for a host of US ills.

But when Trump hosted Xi at the Pres­i­dent’s Mar-a-Lago es­tate in Florida, his tone changed.

In an ap­par­ent ef­fort to se­cure Xi’s help on North Korea, Trump has cur­tailed his crit­i­cism and shifted his fo­cus to ar­eas where he thinks he can win.

The fo­cus on sign­ing deals in front of the cam­eras — as op­posed to, say, ham­mer­ing out so­lu­tions to long­stand­ing eco­nomic is­sues — makes some sense, ex­perts said. Trump lacks diplo­matic ex­pe­ri­ence and has been slow to make ap­point­ments to sev­eral key Asia roles.

“We haven’t yet had the band­width in the US Ad­min­is­tra­tion or the time to have de­tailed con­ver­sa­tions with the Chi­nese side on mar­ket ac­cess and other sys­temic is­sues,” said Ti­mothy Strat­ford, man­ag­ing part­ner of Cov­ing­ton and Burl­ing’s Bei­jing of­fice and a for­mer as­sis­tant US trade rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

“Un­less you’ve had time to dis­cuss these very dif­fi­cult and com­pli­cated is­sues in some de­tail, you can’t ex­pect the two pres­i­dents to an­nounce any­thing that is con­crete and de­tailed and mean­ing­ful,” he said.

“I fully ex­pect these very tough dis­cus­sions to be­gin in the next few months.”

Chen Dingding, a pro­fes­sor at Guangzhou’s Ji­nan Uni­ver­sity, said the visit was a start­ing point — a first of­fer on the way to the next deal.

“What’s the al­ter­na­tive? No trade deals? Of­ten you can’t get your best deal — you can get your sec­ond best, get your third and move from there.”

Both the Chi­nese and US sides, of course, are cast­ing Thurs­day’s agree­ments as first-rate.

At a brief­ing af­ter the meet­ing, Com­merce Min­is­ter Zhong Shan said the deals were “a mir­a­cle”.

China’s Com­mu­nist Par­ty­con­trolled press seems pleased, for now, with Trump’s visit, for what he said and didn’t say.

The Global Times, a news­pa­per known for its na­tion­al­ist rhetoric, ran an edi­to­rial on Thurs­day head­lined: “What do most Chi­nese peo­ple like about Trump?”

The piece noted Trump’s “frank” char­ac­ter and “prag­matic” ap­proach to US-China ties, men­tion­ing specif­i­cally that he does not bring up hu­man rights.

One of the main rea­sons China likes Trump is that Trump likes Xi, the pa­per ar­gued.

“He re­spects our head of state and has re­peat­edly praised Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping in pub­lic.”

The pa­per noted in par­tic­u­lar that Trump had been quick to call Xi af­ter the re­cent 19th Party Congress.

“This is re­spect for the Chi­nese sys­tem.”

The ques­tion is what hap­pens if the friendly rhetoric changes — if Trump, for what­ever rea­son, stops be­ing so pos­i­tive about Xi.

With the mood in the US turn­ing in­creas­ingly scep­ti­cal about China and the ben­e­fits of the bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship, that has to be a real pos­si­bil­ity, ex­perts said.

“Pres­i­dent Xi and the Chi­nese lead­er­ship will think that they have done an aw­ful lot to give Pres­i­dent Trump face: They’ve done a state visit-plus, they’ve rolled the red car­pet out with all the pomp and cer­e­mony, they did all these busi­ness deals, and they come away think­ing the re­la­tion­ship is on a solid foot­ing,” said Paul Haenle, di­rec­tor of the Carnegie-Ts­inghua Cen­tre in Bei­jing.

“But Pres­i­dent Trump may go home to a do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment where peo­ple are dis­ap­pointed he hasn’t achieved more progress on trade and eco­nom­ics and North Korea,” he said, “and you may see a shift to­wards a much harder line.”

Trump ar­rived in Viet­nam yes­ter­day for the Apec Sum­mit and fin­ishes off his 12-day Asian tour in the Philip­pines. Wash­ing­ton Post

Pic­ture / AP

Xi Jin­ping and Don­ald Trump share a joke as they head to a state din­ner with their wives in Bei­jing.

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