Donald Trump has finally realised he needs China as a friend
Washington has too many issues to deal with that require Beijing’s cooperation
The American missile strike against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad might have overshadowed the first summit between presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. But Beijing probably welcomed that.
For the two events clearly demonstrate two things: firstly, that the US has far too many interests and agendas it needs help with from a friendly China, and secondly that Russia is not America’s friend, but a rival, if not an outright enemy. The Assad regime has become Russia’s most important client state in the Middle East, and Syria is the conduit through which Vladimir Putin hopes to reassert traditional Russian influence in the troubled region.
Some critics claim the missile attack was a message to North Korea and China, too. Maybe so, but I am not sure Beijing would be unhappy if someone – anyone – would put this wayward ally in its place. Beijing today has no ideological affinity with Pyongyang. Its main interest in keeping North Korea afloat is to prevent unification on the peninsula that would enable the American and South Korean military to extend right up to its own borders.
Trump went up against China, at least for a time, over the one-China policy, currency manipulation and the trade imbalance. He treated Putin like a fan and fought his own intelligence chiefs over allegations of Russian meddling in the US presidential election. A late learner, he appears to have finally reached the same conclusion as every major Western country: key global issues from trade and terrorism to North Korea and ship lane access in the South China Sea require China’s cooperation. I might have added global warming, except Trump and the Republican Party don’t seem to think it’s real.
It has been much said that nothing of substance was achieved at the summit. But that suits Xi fine. He can live with the status quo between the two countries. All he needs is a White House that is not overtly hostile. Trump, however, needs something concrete far more urgently to justify his young but beleaguered administration.
Beijing understands that and is happy to throw him a few bones. It has promised to offer better market access for foreigners to invest in the mainland’s financial sector, something that Barack Obama had tried but failed to negotiate, and to lift a ban on US beef, in place since 2003. These are concessions Trump can sell to an increasingly sceptical American public.