22 March 2019
Chinese President Xi Jinping is not inclined to reveal his hand or speak until he is ready. Photo: Reuters
Chinese President Xi Jinping is not inclined to reveal his hand or speak until he is ready. Photo: Reuters

Will Trump really serve China’s president a Big Mac?

The meeting between Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, was announced barely a week before it was to be held, suggesting difficult problems ahead. Almost simultaneously, Trump tweeted: “The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one.”

Indeed, the difficulties are likely to be much greater than the American president expects. Trump has zero experience in government, in diplomacy or in the military. He has no overall global policy and no Asia regional policy into which to fit a China policy.

His foreign policy team is not in place. Aside from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the upper ranks of the State Department remain unfilled. The one person with experience whom Tillerson wanted as his deputy, Elliott Abrams, was rejected because he had criticized Trump.

Each administration has a point man on China policy. In the last administration it was Daniel R. Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. That position is now vacant. For the time being, the point man seems to be Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who also handles Middle Eastern policy.

On the Chinese side, Xi Jinping rose through the ranks, having been governor of Fujian province and party secretary of Zhejiang province and Shanghai before joining the central leadership a decade ago. While Trump has been in power for less than three months, Xi has ruled China more than four years. His foreign policy advisers are solid.

Trump wants to “Make America great again” while Xi talks about the “Chinese dream.”

The Chinese dream involves “the great revival of the Chinese nation” and restoration of the country to a position of dominance, while Trump’s vision of America involves reduction of the country’s global role. The US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which accounts for 40 percent of the world’s trade, created a vacuum into which China is moving.

Trump likes to depict himself as a solver of problems through deal making. He is boastful, saying he doesn’t need daily intelligence briefings because he is a “smart person”. But when dealing with China he can’t be too well prepared. He cannot be cavalier about the security of the nation.

This carefully conjured image of someone far superior to ordinary politicians has been badly tarnished since he assumed office, especially by his failure to repeal Obamacare.

Xi is, by contrast, a very careful person, not inclined to reveal his hand and not to speak until he is ready. China remained restrained despite Trump’s many rants before and after the election until Trump said he might not abide by the “one China policy.”

Xi then made it clear that China would not do business with him and Trump was forced to take back what he had said.

Some say it is too soon for Trump to meet the Chinese leader. However, Barack Obama met with the then Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, on April 1, 2009, also less than three months after assuming office. But his secretary of state was confirmed the day after his inauguration and his China experts were in place.

Trump in his tweet showed that he was most concerned with trade deficits and jobs. The US trade figures with China are distorted and the deficit will be substantially cut by an agreement to calculate it according to the value-added method, which is internationally accepted.

An increase in Chinese investment will create American jobs but the US has always been cautious about the national security implications of such investments, so this is a double-edged sword.

A key issue is North Korea. Trump is going to ask China to help resolve the problem of Pyongyang’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities. According to the Financial Times, Trump has promised to unilaterally “solve North Korea” if China doesn’t do it. The outcome of that discussion will be crucial.

Trump has no China policy to speak of except spur-of-the-moment tweets. During the campaign, he threatened to impose a 45 percent tariff on imports from China and to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office.

Both turned out to be empty threats. No doubt, such behavior helped Xi to take the measure of the man he is to meet on Thursday and Friday.

Speaking of the visit, what will Trump serve his dinner guests, the Chinese president and his wife, Peng Liyuan? When Xi visited the US in 2015, Trump criticized Obama for giving him a state dinner and said, “I would get him a McDonald’s hamburger.” Now is his chance.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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