A bro­mance un­likely to run smooth

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate -

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.

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