Donald Trump came to China on his first visit as President of America. He was on a trip of five Asian countries which included China, America’s biggest regional rival, and often the object of the president’s non-stop tirades. China is a rising Asian power which Trump has often described as a threat to America while other countries on the tour are either treaty allies, namely Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, or a new strategic partner, namely Vietnam. Contrary to his China bashing approach, Donald Trump seemed to be unusually sober and receptive while he met Chinese counterpart. He called his relationship with Xi “excellent” and declared that he “liked him a lot”. He continued his flattery of Xi during his China visit calling him “a very special man”, a “highly respected and powerful representative of his people”, and congratulating him for consolidating his power at the recent “very successful” Communist party congress.
Notwithstanding President Donald’s posturing against China during his election campaign and afterwards, when he landed in China on November 08, he could not assert any of his ideas strongly; instead he was hugely accommodative, receptive and humbled. The Independent news daily had compared the leaders of the two countries on the eve of Trump’s visit to China (November 07) saying “President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful figure in a generation, is elevating his nation as a global power. Trump is unpopular and untrusted, pursued by political scandal and questions over his temperament as commander in chief of the world’s most formidable military.” The outcomes of the visit were at least partially the result of these ground realities.
The US President could not manage any big bargain with China on major disputes, but he certainly bargained some worthwhile business deals with the country. 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.
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.” 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.
It was, however a consolation prize for the tough talking American President as he could not raise any of the issues emphatically which were loudly made during his election campaign. Adopting an often bellicose language, during his election campaign 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.
Signs of emergence of a post-American order in Asia
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. Instead Trump gave “China great credit” for its capacity to “take advantage of another country [America] for the benefit of its citizens”. Thus, Beijing has managed to expose the hollowness of Trump’s aggressive posturing through carefully crafted set of mutually satisfactory trade deals. Richard Heydarian (China Morning Post, November 13) describes this as “Chinese statecraft at its finest.” He added, “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.”
However, 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.
Geopolitical Tensions remained unaddressed
North Korea- In the realm 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.
South China Sea– 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 signaled 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.
No joint Statement
Oddly, Trump’s visits produced no joint statements, which points to the difficulties in agreeing to balanced formulations on divisive issues with the White House. The release of the White House on the Trump-Xi talks is not substantial. Xi used the opportunity of the joint press conference with Trump to elaborate on China’s positions on issues on the agenda with the US. He sought practical cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative, called for respecting each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, underlined China’s role in the Asia-Pacific, claiming that “the Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States”, which is an indirect way of affirming that China will pursue its assertive policies in this region and the US should yield it the space it wants.
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. Former Foreign Secretary of India Kanwal Sibal rightly claims that Donald Trump’s extensive East Asia visit has not produced any striking results, which is not surprising as US policy towards this region is marked by contradictions. China’s policies in the region have become increasingly disruptive, but an effective US response is absent because huge American trade and financial links to China rob Washington of the kind of tools deployed against Russia where American economic stakes are very limited. He further adds that China will not abandon North Korea so long as the US is militarily present in South Korea, and the US cannot withdraw from the Korean peninsula without unraveling its long-standing security arrangements in the region and eroding the political foundation of its presence there. Trump will not get satisfaction from China on both issues. In fact, China has neither the means nor the resolve to denuclearise North Korea, and Trump too, despite his bluster, cannot use military means to achieve that objective without exposing Seoul to horrendous consequences.
China has played the shrewder card so far, building its economic power on the back of America and its allies and using the strength acquired (including military) to challenge American power in the region. Further he points out that Trump has created a lot of uncertainty about the thrust of US policies in East Asia. The intensely parochial “America First” philosophy sends a signal even to its allies in the region that US interests will override theirs. Such a message cannot remain limited to the economic domain as it will create doubts about US security commitments to the region if their excessive burden is seen by the US as weakening it economically.”