When Trump visits China, avoiding the worst may be the best we can hope for
David M. Lampton says the flaws of the Trump presidency will show up in the highly anticipated meeting with his powerful and astute Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, and major issues of contention are unlikely to be resolved
US President Donald Trump will soon travel to China amid the menace of conflict on the Korean peninsula, a deep-seated American sense of the inequity of US-China economic relations, and a general ratcheting up of military insecurity throughout Asia. Adding to this mix are a Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who emerged greatly strengthened from the just-concluded 19th party congress, and an embattled US president who badly needs “success”.
I worry that Trump is going to China to meet a greatly empowered counterpart who has a strategic vision. It is worrying that a politically needy US president, with little knowledge of China and much of his foreign policy bureaucracy still not in place 10 months into his presidency, is heading to Beijing to deal with an interlocutor who knows what he is doing and coming off his coronation as China’s supreme leader.
I cannot help but remember what General Joseph Stilwell, president Franklin Roosevelt’s on-the-ground military liaison with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, said in his wartime journals when US envoy Wendell Willkie was about to arrive in China in the summer of 1942 to deal with Chiang, a crafty negotiator who had an American-educated wife of considerable magnetism and skill: They are going to drag him around to see schools and factories and girl scouts and sewing circles and arsenals and keep him well insulated from pollution by Americans. The idea is to get him so exhausted and keep him so torpid with food and drink that his faculties will be dulled and he’ll be stuffed with the right doctrines.
Trump is a president who loves to be flattered – and the Chinese know how to flatter.
This danger aside, it is the right time for an American president to go to China. But is this the right American president to do so? While, on balance, such summitry is welcome, in the current circumstance lots of pre-planning and disciplined presidential behaviour is an absolute requirement.
This is an important time for an American president to go to China, for reasons that have to do with domestic politics in both countries and for foreign policy reasons, as well. Domestically, Xi has just been enshrined into the party constitution for his “Thought” on “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. From Xi’s almost 3½-hour marathon party congress speech on October 18, we know the “new era” means shifting from a preoccupation with raw gross domestic product growth to more balanced development for a higher quality of life. We also know that this era will be characterised by a China tightening internal Communist Party control over “everything” and being ever more vigilant over corrosive “Western values”. We also know that, in terms of domestic economics, Beijing “will support state capital in becoming stronger, doing better, and growing bigger...”
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Internationally, we know that the “new era” means, in Xi’s words, that it is “time for China to take centre stage” in the world and to assert its sovereignty claims with the utmost determination. We know that the Communist Party intends to achieve the “complete reunification” of Taiwan with China, this goal cannot be forever deferred, and that reunification is part of the mid-century “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
Further, we know that unlike all leaders from Deng Xiaoping through to Hu Jintao, Xi now sees “a further rise in China’s international influence, ability to inspire, and power to shape” international affairs and global governance – China is an alternative model to the Western liberal order.
And finally, with its “Belt and Road” infrastructure-building initiative around China’s periphery, Beijing is laying the foundations of connectivity that will help make it the hub for growing value and production chains that will drive growth in the new era and increase China’s national power.
In short, Trump is going to China at precisely the time Beijing is heading in new and profoundly important directions internally and externally. Washington and Beijing need a serious, strategic, discussion of the actual content of these new directions. Where do Chinese and American interests converge? How can the two sides maximise cooperation and minimise contention? Where do our interests diverge, and how can these differences be managed? What is worrisome is that this does not sound like the conversation that is Trump’s “diplomatic cup of tea”. As needed as such discussion is, this trip is unlikely to produce it.
So, if this trip is unlikely to address fundamental issues, what are the risks and what are likely to be the results? With respect to risks, apparently the two presidents get along, at some level, with Trump having said: “We have great chemistry together.” But one cannot exclude the incendiary possibilities of two fragile egos in situations fraught with the danger of embarrassment.
Where did the Xi-Trump bromance go?
The story of the Trump-Xi relationship has been one of great expectations in Washington for trade gains and more pressure on North Korea – dreams generally dashed in Beijing. If one puts oneself in Xi’s seat, what he has seen is inconsistency out of a US administration in which subordinates fight among themselves and the president mercurially intervenes. There have been few clear, consistent messages out of the Trump administration (beyond the dislike of multilateralism), whether they are on trade and economic issues, the balance between threat and negotiation on the Korean peninsula, the one-China policy, or even the degree to which America supports its own allies.
Beyond this, Xi may think that the US president needs a “success” more than he does. Indeed, resisting Trump’s demands may constitute success for Xi. Trump touts his negotiating abilities but he has little to show for his efforts to date.
These contradictory motivations could lead to one of two outcomes: Trump could simply reach the end of his patience, or – and I think this is the more likely alternative – the US president may have to swallow hard and accept minor gains and promote them as transformative developments. So, for example, instead of making significant progress on increasing the number of American economic sectors that have relatively unfettered access to the Chinese market, we are likely to see one-off economic transactions, whether they be aircraft sales or individual Chinese investments in the United States. As welcome as such deals would be, they don’t move the overall economic relationship in a direction favourable to US interests or the goals Trump set for his own political base.
As to North Korea, over the past two decades, Beijing has shown that it will live with a nuclear North Korea if the alternative is destabilisation and conflict on the Korean peninsula. We can expect, therefore, talk about further tightening the screws on Pyongyang but no fundamental changes – unless Trump loses all restraint and moves towards a military option. The latter would be a disaster.
So, hold your breath as Trump goes to China. We probably won’t achieve the best, but let’s hope we avoid the worst.
David M. Lampton is Hyman Professor and director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins-SAIS in Washington, DC. Along with two colleagues, he is writing a book on high-speed railway development from China to Southeast Asia. His most recent book is: Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping