Trump humbled in China as Beijing visit underlines the new world order in Asia
Far from highlighting America’s leadership, trip accentuates China’s emergence as alternative pillar of prosperity and stability in world’s most dynamic region, writes Richard Heydarian
Of the stops on Donald Trump’s five-country trip to Asia, the one that stands out is Beijing. After all, China is considered America’s biggest regional rival, and often the object of the president’s non-stop tirades.
All of the other countries on the tour are either treaty allies, namely Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, or a new strategic partner, namely Vietnam.
The visit, which saw Trump failing to secure any major concession from China, underlined the glacial but unmistakable emergence of a truly post-American order in Asia.
Far from highlighting America’s leadership in the region, the visit accentuated China’s emergence as the alternative pillar of prosperity and stability in the world’s most dynamic geopolitical theatre. Trump embarked on his Asia trip to assert American centrality in global affairs, but left Beijing as a humbled leader of a declining superpower.
Since the presidential campaign period, Trump has zeroed in on China with verve and vigour, often portraying the Asian powerhouse as a main threat to American economic well-being and global supremacy.
Adopting an often bellicose language, he has accused China of engaging in supposed currency manipulation, running an excessive trade surplus with America, aggressively dominating adjacent waters at the expense of regional allies such as Japan and the Philippines, and aiding pariahs like North Korea.
No wonder then, the world carefully watched whether the tough-talking American president could extract any major concession on key areas of difference with Beijing. As expected, however, China managed to mollify and tame the American president, while standing its ground on areas of disagreement.
Under Trump, China’s trade surplus with America has actually widened to US$223 billion in the first 10 months of this year – a double-digit increase from a year earlier. But instead of backing down on areas of core interest, especially on trade and industrial policy, China deftly split the difference.
To temper American concerns over its huge trade deficit with China, Beijing offered 37 major investment deals totalling more than US$250 billion to 30 CEOs from major American companies. Big names such as Boeing, General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Qualcomm, Cheniere Energy, Air Products were among those who joined Trump’s visiting delegation of businessmen.
The US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross praised the agreements as a crucial step in providing “a solid foundation for a stronger relationship that is more free, fair, and reciprocal between the US and China.”
To the applause of his Chinese audience, Trump went so far as giving “China great credit” for its capacity to “take advantage of another country [America] for the benefit of its citizens …”
Instead of blaming China for America’s trade woes, he placed the responsibility on his predecessors for failing to adopt an optimal economic relationship with the world’s biggest exporting nation. For now, it seems the Trump administration is effectively backing down from its earlier threats of imposing trade sanctions on China.
Thus, Beijing has managed to expose the hollowness of Trump’s aggressive posturing through carefully crafted set of mutually satisfactory trade deals. This was Chinese statecraft at its finest.
To be fair though, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised an open investment environment and that “China will not close its doors” and keep its huge domestic market “more open, more transparent and more orderly” for foreign companies, including Americans. It was a well-timed statement of reassurance amid growing concerns over rise of economic nationalism in China.
As for areas of geopolitical tensions, Trump left almost empty-handed from Beijing. Speaking before the South Korean National Assembly a day earlier, the American president deployed a thinly veiled attack against China for supposedly choosing to “ignore” or “worse still, to enable” North Korea. He squarely placed the “weight of [the] crisis” on China’s “conscience”.
Yet, all that tough talk quickly translated into a conciliatory gratitude to China for its efforts to rein in North Korea’s aggressive nuclear and ballistic missile programme. In Beijing, Trump simply called “on China and your great president to hopefully work on it very hard,” expressing his optimism that “If [Xi] works on it hard”, there will be a quick resolution of the crisis in the Korean Peninsula.
Likely, there was also no significant deal on rising Sino-American tensions in the South China Sea, with American navy challenging China’s reclamation activities via regularised “freedom of navigation operations” close to disputed land features. Describing bilateral relations as standing at a “new historic starting point”, the Chinese president reiterated his earlier point that, “The Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States”.
Thus, China signalled its willingness for an emerging “grand bargain” in adjacent waters, with no palpable resistance from the Trump administration, which is desperate for Beijing’s help on the North Korea issue.
The failure to secure any major concession on key areas of difference may explain Trump’s controversial refusal to take any questions from the media during his joint press conference with Xi. As they say, sometimes silence speaks volumes. Trump’s humbling visit to China is likely a harbinger of a new order in Asia, where America is no longer the undisputed number one.
Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy