China’s Xi fetes Trump on first day of Beijing trip. (Reuters)
Donald Trump gave Xi Jinping endorsements; Xi gave Trump face. Trump heaped praise on Xi for being a strong leader; Xi did not return the compliment. Trump announced US responsibility for the trade deficit; Xi did not contradict him. Trump will claim that China has agreed to remove barriers to the American financial sector in the Chinese market; but Xi’s promises aren’t ironclad. Trump lamented that the US is “so far behind” China, while Xi simply noted that the Pacific has room for both countries. Trump said nothing about human rights in China, letting Xi believe it's no longer an American priority. Trump called on China for the umpteenth time to strengthen sanctions on North Korea; Xi said nothing, and the Chinese press removed Trump’s comments. Trump returned home and said the trip was a huge success, while Xi surely believes the home field advantage really works.
In short, Trump emerged looking like a supplicant, whereas Xi came off looking like the head of a coequal great power. Although most observers credited Trump with staying on message and avoiding gaffes, that brief embrace of normalcy did not lead to major accomplishments with respect to promoting US interests. Publicly, at least, Trump did not offer a forceful message on the South China Sea dispute, relations with Russia, or intellectual property rights, let alone on civil liberties. Nor did he insist on a concluding joint press conference, such as would ordinarily occur, to present the administration’s views. And since Trump has pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris accord on climate change, he had nothing to say about multilateral trade arrangements or global warming, not to mention some of the other pressing global issues of our time, such as nuclear weapons, poverty alleviation, military spending, immigration, and alternative energy.
Xi, Thomas Friedman concluded in the New York Times, could sell Trump the Brooklyn Bridge. (Coming from Brooklyn, I can tell you it’s an old and decaying bridge.) And he did, by making very few promises that would divert China from its single-minded determination to become a world economic and political power. The ballyhooed $250 billion in new trade and investment deals hinges on future uncertainties; the deals are nonbinding MOUs, not contracts. And we know from previous Trump claims that “the art of the deal” is less art and more fancy packaging. For the present, it is unclear whether or not the United States will have better access to Chinese financial and insurance markets or receive significant tariff reductions on US products. In fact, Trump let Xi off the hook by actually giving China “great credit” for “killing” the US in trade, instead blaming previous administrations for the huge deficit with China. (Trump got plenty of applause from his Chinese audience for those remarks.) Xi might have offered the United States a role in a few signature Chinese economic development projects, such as One Belt, One Road and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. But he did not. Instead, knowing how easily Trump is influenced by flattery—as the Chinese no doubt learned from the elaborate Saudi welcome for Trump in May—Xi put on quite a cultural show for the US president that produced “wows.”
The Chinese like to say, with considerable justice, that the strength of a country’s foreign policy depends on domestic politics. Here the contrast between the US and China is stark, and provides the essential background for understanding where the two great powers really stand. Whereas Xi has consolidated his power for the next five years—and some observers believe he might rule beyond 2022—Trump’s very legitimacy is in question. The noose of the special counsel is tightening around Trump’s inner circle over Russian interference in the 2016 election, while Xi’s “thought” is now embedded in the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution and no challenger is in sight. Trump travels everywhere with heavy political baggage, his ability to project confidence and strength greatly diminished not only by investigations that may force him from office but also by legislative defeats, inner-Republican Party turmoil, and serious criticisms of the president’s moral compass, psychological stability, and governing experience. It would be quite surprising if Xi wasn’t well briefed on how to take advantage of Trump’s weaknesses, such as by conceding very little.
Trump left China feeling good about the pomp and ceremony but forgetting that across Asia there was expectation that the United States would recommit to its friends. For them, the central issue is being able to take advantage of positive US-China relations rather than, as in Cold War days, having to choose between Washington and Beijing. Trump left Asian leaders down, leaving the commercial and environmental fields to China. Xi can thus credibly lay claim to China being the foremost economic power in Asia and a “responsible great power” when it comes to addressing urgent global issues. As Susan Rice recently wrote, Xi should be wearing the red hat, emblazoned with “Make China Great Again.”
Since politicians and media like to focus on winners and losers, is there any doubt how the Beijing 2017 meeting will be remembered?