Trump’s China trip: Beneath the smiles, a harsh reality

November 16, 2017 08:30
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, with their hosts, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan, visit the Forbidden City in Beijing on Nov. 8. Photo: Reuters

President Xi Jinping gave Donald Trump unprecedented “state visit plus” treatment during the US leader’s three-day visit to China, which was hailed as “successful and historic”, with a display of affability between the two men.

Trump, while unhappy with China on trade and North Korean issues, had nothing but praise for his host in public.

In a speech to business leaders, with Xi at his side, the American president launched into a familiar topic – America’s trade deficit with China – saying that unfair trade practices drive this deficit, along with barriers to market access.

“We really have to look at access, forced technology transfer, and the theft of intellectual property, which just by and of itself is costing the United States and its companies at least US$300 billion a year,” he said.

But then he surprisingly said: “But I don’t blame China. After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit!”

Although the Chinese applauded him for this backhanded compliment, it is clear that buried in Trump’s meandering speech was an implicit threat against China: What happened during the time of his predecessors would not happen on his watch.

“We have to fix this,” he said, “because it just doesn’t work for our great American companies, and it doesn’t work for our great American workers.”

The trade deficit with China in 2016 was US$347 billion and every sign is that it will be even larger this year.

The other area where Trump wanted his Chinese counterpart to take action was North Korea, where the regime’s program of testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles has been so successful that it is feared that the continental United States may soon come within range of its nuclear weapons.

Again, Trump seemed to compliment his host by saying, “China can fix this problem easily and quickly, and I am calling on China and your great president to hopefully work on it very hard. I know one thing about your president: If he works on it hard, it will happen. There’s no doubt about it.”

There is also no doubt that Trump has been calling on Xi to fix this problem for more than six months. So the fact that it hasn’t been fixed is, in fact, a criticism of the Chinese leader.

On this trip, Trump attempted to spur Xi on to greater efforts. “I thank President Xi for his recent efforts to restrict trade with North Korea and to cut off all banking ties,” Trump said. “But time is quickly running out. We must act fast, and hopefully China will act faster and more effectively on this problem than anyone.”

So Trump, while being courteous to Xi like a model guest, also made it clear that the Chinese president is expected to do more, and to do it much faster. If not, as Trump has repeatedly said, the military option is on the table – something to which China is strongly opposed.

While the American and Chinese leaders seem to like each other, and each has worked hard to cultivate the other, in the last analysis they serve different interests.

Both China and the US know that there is only so much time for diplomacy before tougher measures are employed. That is true of both North Korea and the trade issue. 

Without dramatic progress on North Korea, Trump is likely to act against China in the trade area, as he had promised to do during last year’s election campaign.

One indication of the direction in which events are moving came at the end of the Trump visit. Both Trump and his host, Xi, left Beijing for Danang, in Vietnam, for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting.

Xi, in an article published in the official Vietnamese Communist Party newspaper, recalled that China and Vietnam had a long relationship, with the two nations having “fought shoulder to shoulder” in the struggle for independence.

Trump, in his APEC speech, also talked about independence but with a different twist. He linked America’s struggle for independence with Vietnam’s heroic Trung sisters, who led a revolt against Chinese overlords 2,000 years ago. That attempt failed but, Trump said, it was the first time that “the people of Vietnam stood for your independence and your pride”.

Gone was the warmth between Trump and Xi, guest and host. Despite Trump’s pleasing comments in Beijing, both sides know the harsh underlying realities. Sino-American relations will be strained unless one side is willing to make concessions on what it sees as a core national interest. This seems unlikely.

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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.