With friends like Donald Trump, Xi Jinping doesn’t need enemies

Cary Huang says the friendship between the US and Chinese leaders alone isn’t enough to repair US-China relations. And there might not even be a friendship any more, after US Vice-President Mike Pence’s attack on Xi’s policies

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2018, 2:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2018, 2:38am

In any simmering diplomatic dispute between nations, a leader-to-leader meeting is always the most effective platform to defuse the crisis.

It is all the more so in the case of the United States and China, as many believe that the friendship between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping is advantageous to US-China relations. Hopes are high that Trump and Xi might meet at the upcoming G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in late November, despite growing trade tensions.

Just last year, the two leaders seemed to enjoy a warm friendship at their two summits. In April, Xi was treated like an old friend at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s resort in Florida, and, in November, Trump was given the imperial treatment during a “state-visit-plus” to Beijing: the Forbidden City was closed to the public to receive Trump.

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Back then, the leaders’ one-on-one meetings had the makings of a bromance. Trump gushed about their “great chemistry”, and Xi sounded upbeat about bilateral relations, saying there were “a thousand reasons to get China-US relations right, and not one single reason to spoil them”. Few doubted that the warmth was indicative of the leaders’ appetite for personal friendship and cooperation between their governments.

Fast-forward to October 4, when in a speech at the Hudson Institute, US Vice-President Mike Pence signalled a fundamental shift in US policy on China: from half a century of engagement following Richard Nixon’s China visit in 1972, back to the containment once championed by cold-war hawks.

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Although Pence focused on state-to-state relations, his remarks underscored the increasing divergence in recent years between the leaders and administrations of the US and China.

The speech was the Trump administration’s latest narrative of Beijing, and amply showed how much the pendulum had swung in Washington since Xi came to office in 2012. Pence kept citing “recent” Chinese transgressions to justify why the US should adopt a tougher approach to China.

In effect, Pence attacked almost all of Xi’s domestic and foreign policy initiatives.

He accused Beijing of deviating from “Deng Xiaoping’s famous policy” of reform; of using an “arsenal of policies inconsistent with free and fair trade, including tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft and industrial subsidies that are handed out like candy to foreign investment”; and of expanding its influence around the world through “so-called ‘debt diplomacy’.”

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Pointedly, he lamented how personal liberty, religious freedom and other human rights had eroded in China on Xi’s watch. “For a time, Beijing inched toward greater liberty and respect for human rights. But in recent years, China has taken a sharp U-turn toward control and oppression of its own people,” he said.

“Today, China has built an unparalleled surveillance state, and it’s growing more expansive and intrusive – often with the help of US technology.”

Worse, Pence also repeated Trump’s accusation that Beijing is undermining the Trump administration and interfering in the upcoming US midterm elections.

According to Pence, the Chinese have not only imposed tariffs on the very industries and states that are crucial to Trump in the midterms, but also encouraged American business leaders to speak out against the administration’s policies.

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But, just as Pence accuses Beijing of undercutting Trump, it is apparent that Trump is using Pence as a proxy to undermine Xi. And Trump is well aware that he has jeopardised his relationship with “my friend President Xi”. After Trump accused China of meddling in the US elections, he admitted Xi might not be friends with him any more.

In diplomacy, the personal friendship of leaders is more often a matter of protocol. When it comes to the crunch, national and economic interests, as well as values and geopolitics, are more decisive factors in state-to-state relations.

Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s