A bromance unlikely to run smooth
Mao once observed that a revolution is not a dinner party. Neither are great power relations – even if they manifest temporarily as a lavish meal in the Forbidden City. Last Wednesday’s feast for Donald Trump was the first time the palace in central Beijing had hosted a banquet for a foreign leader since the Communist party took power in 1949. Beijing, adept at ladling on such flattery, pitched this leg of the US president’s Asia tour as a “state visit-plus” and arranged a greeting party of children to cry: “Welcome to China! I love you!”
It seems to have worked – for now. The visit’s arrangements were magnificent, incredible, beautiful, impressive, terrific and unforgettable, Mr Trump enthused. His description of his “great chemistry” with Xi Jinping made it sound like a fully fledged bromance. The man who accused China of raping the US economy and promised to label it a currency manipulator on his first day in office said the trade relationship was unfair: but he blamed his predecessors, not Beijing. He tweeted that he is looking forward to building “an even STRONGER relationship”.
That Mr Trump seems to enjoy visiting authoritarian countries more than traditional democratic allies has already been noted. He is uninterested in paying even lip service to human rights issues, such as the activists and dissidents harassed or placed under house arrest for his visit. America’s retreat from global leadership is a gift to Beijing; last week we learned that the US will be the only country outside the Paris accord if the president follows through on his pledge to leave, while Mr Xi has positioned China as the champion of action on climate change.
But it is hard to believe this love is built to last. Mr Trump is predictable chiefly in his inconsistency. Mr Xi’s remark that the two nations’ interests were “closely converging” seems, to put it mildly, a stretch. In the US views on Beijing are hardening.
China’s disdain for the US is increasingly clear, among the population as well as in the leadership. So is its increasing confidence in the world. It has spent years pouring money into its military as it attempts to catch up with the US; this year it opened its first foreign military base. Its mammoth One Belt, One Road international infrastructure project is another indication of its regional ambitions.
But the clearest one came at last month’s Communist party congress. It was notable not only for cementing Mr Xi’s immense power, but also for its trumpeting of a resurgent China, regaining its rightful place in the world – and reshaping the rules as it does so. As Mr Xi spelt out, “It will be an era that sees China moving closer to centre stage” and becoming a model for others.
His vision of “great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” will no doubt include more cosy dinners, but the US and others will find it hard to stomach.