There’s been a whole lot of winning so far during the Trump presidency – for China.
After accusing China of “raping” American workers and stealing their jobs in his White House campaign, Donald Trump has found it harder to hold Beijing to account as President.
In fact, his unpredictable policy moves and temperament are offering openings to China that could help it fulfill its mission of cementing its rise to superpower status more quickly than expected.
Trump has shown the policy reflexes best suited for a pinball machine when it comes to Beijing, threatening to crush it in trade wars one day and then being ready to make deals the next.
He’s obsessed with one economic issue above all others: the $375 billion US trade deficit with China, which appears to be distracting him from goals that include halting Chinese intellectual property theft, which represents a far more serious threat to the American economy.
Trump’s decision to anchor US-China relations on a hyper-personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping also opens the US President to the possibility of manipulation. Chinese leaders have long used flattery to court American politicians – and the current commander in chief seems especially susceptible to such an approach.
Trump’s desire to maintain China’s help on the North Korea nuclear crisis gives Beijing leverage. And his abandonment of US leadership on issues like global warming and global trade has given China the opportunity to claim the former US role as a steady steward of world affairs.
The administration’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, for instance, allows Beijing to argue to US allies in Asia that Washington’s promise to remain engaged in the region as a counterbalance to China’s rise is empty.
And while Washington slogs through a daily riot of scandal and chaos, China is pressing forward with its aggressive territorial gambits in the South China Sea in areas also claimed by US allies and is expanding its soft-power trade and investment expansion throughout Eurasia. These are developments that rarely make the news in the US but are vital to Beijing’s aspirations to challenge American power.
It’s not as though the administration has not noticed all these developments.
The Chinese strategy actually validates the strong line that was spelled out in Trump’s own new National Security Strategy, which describes Beijing as a competitor to “American power, influence and interests” in Asia and around the world.
Then, on Wednesday, the Pentagon pulled an invite to China to take part in a huge international naval exercise after it landed a bomber on a disputed island in the South China Sea and deployed missile launchers, after previously undertaking not to militarize the area.
But Trump’s own approach to seems to be at odds with his stated policy.
“While the administration at the bureaucratic level is trying to think and talk about long-term issues, the President himself is very focused on the short term,” said Aaron Friedberg, who served in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney and is now a professor at Princeton University.
The potential damage to US interests is compounded by the fact that China, now led by its strongest President in generations, is rarely accused of playing a short-term game – and thinks in decades and centuries rather than the blinks of time between US elections.
Trends in US-China relations that seem to favor Beijing have been in evidence in recent days.
Last weekend, Trump shelved his threat of waging a trade war with China – perhaps after concluding, at least for now, that it would not be so easy to win as he predicted.
Ryan Hass, a former State Department and National Security Council staffer who’s now with the Brookings Institution, said Trump had judged that he could not afford a rupture with Xi before his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which is planned for June 12.
“Whereas six weeks ago, the administration was running headlong at the trade issue, now it appears to be, at the most charitable interpretation, putting the pause button on things,” Hass said.
Of course, temporarily muting US competition in China might eventually be seen as a shrewd tactic should Trump secure a deal to end Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, an achievement that would rank as one of the biggest US foreign policy coups in decades.
But the reception to a trade deal reached with China over the weekend to avert a looming tariff battle suggests there is disquiet in Washington about ground being lost.
Although it offered concessions on lowering tariffs on auto imports and opening its financial markets, China was not forced to fold on some of the most bitter disputes with the US – on intellectual property, for instance.
But it appeared to convince Trump to pull back a threat to levy $150 billion in tariffs on Chinese products, after offering to buy an unspecified amount of US agricultural products.
“We have been taken again,” trade expert William Reinsch said on the new “Trade Guys” podcast produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Last summer they played us. They played us again,” he said.
Details of the deal are still unclear, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is expected to travel to Beijing next week to finish it off.
But even the President on Wednesday appeared to admit that it would fall short of expectations.
“Our Trade Deal with China is moving along nicely, but in the end we will probably have to use a different structure in that this will be too hard to get done and to verify results after completion,” Trump tweeted.
The President’s apparent climbdown has dismayed some Republicans, including his onetime GOP primary foe, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
“I have urged @potus to follow his initial instincts on China & listen to those in his administration who understand that a short term trade deal that sounds good but poses long term danger is a #BadDeal” Rubio tweeted Wednesday.
Given Trump’s fixation with the deficit and belief that China has been exploiting the US on trade for decades, it’s almost inevitable that tensions on the issue will bubble up again – since the fundamentals of the case have not been solved.
While Trump is being criticized now, the President is right to argue that previous presidents have also been unable to reshape the US-China trade relationship.
‘Great days of my life’
Another aspect of US-China relations that Beijing is playing to its advantage is Trump’s view that relations with other countries are directly reflected in the strength of his personal connections with their leaders.
Trump frequently gushes over the lavish welcome he received during his state visit to China last year.
“I have a great relationship with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine. He likes me. I like him. That was two of the great days of my life, being in China. I don’t think anybody has ever been treated better in China – ever in their history,” Trump said on Wednesday.
The President’s supporters often point to that relationship as being responsible for China signing up to the most punitive sanctions yet imposed on North Korea, which some experts credit for helping to bring Kim to the table.
Yet Xi seems to have exploited the friendship to save Chinese smartphone manufacturer ZTE, which was facing its demise under US punishments imposed for for infringing US sanctions against North Korea and Iran.
Trump tweeted this month that he had ordered the Commerce Department to give the company a reprieve after being asked to intervene by Xi, even though US intelligence agencies worry that ZTE devices could offer an opening for Chinese espionage agencies.
The President defended himself on Wednesday, pointing out that it was his administration that “closed” ZTE in the first place, after he was accused of giving away considerable US leverage of the firm for very little in return.
Friedberg suggested that Trump’s backward step on ZTE could start to convince China that the President is a “paper tiger.”
He argued that Trump’s style was “all about creating drama and attention and pressure and then cutting some kind of deal.”
“But once they (China) have figured that out, then they start discounting the pressure and the noise and so on and they focus just on the bottom line.”
The White House disputes the idea that Trump has gone soft on China and is certain to bill the trade deal, when it is confirmed, as a significant step, however it is portrayed by experts.
“We finally have a President who is actually calling out China on their unfair trade practices – and not just calling them out, but actually doing something about it, and aggressively pushing forward in negotiations, something that we haven’t seen in decades,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday.