Trump-Xi: Bromance and the trade war

May 31, 2019 09:28
A file picture shows US President Donald Trump with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. Trump has described his relationship with Xi as ‘very strong and personal’, but that hasn’t prevented him from launching a trade war. Photo: Reuters

US-China trade talks have been suspended for more than two weeks with no sign of a revival. Listening to Donald Trump talk about his good friend Xi Jinping, one may be forgiven for thinking that the two leaders could easily sort things out between their two countries but, so far, this has not been the case.

With Trump, it seems, it was love at first sight when the two men met at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida in April 2017. “We have developed a friendship,” Trump told the media after his first meeting with the Chinese president. He spoke of the “great chemistry” between them and said, “We like each other; I like him a lot.”

The Chinese leader was more restrained. Speaking of the bilateral relationship, Xi said there were “a thousand reasons to get China-US relations right, and not one single reason to spoil them.”

That autumn, Trump visited China. He was given unprecedented “state-visit-plus” treatment, including a tour of the Forbidden City that included a Peking Opera performance and dinner with the Chinese leader and his wife, the singer Peng Liyuan. Trump appeared overwhelmed by the reception.

According to diplomatic observers in China, this “state-visit-plus” treatment was meant to highlight the working friendship between the two leaders.

At one point, Trump joked about what he considered China’s unfair trading relationship with the United States. But, he said, he didn’t blame China, only his predecessors who allowed this to happen, and added that this couldn’t go on while he was president.

In 2018, Trump put pressure on China to drastically reduce its trade surplus with the United States and to lower its trade barriers.

One example of how Trump worked with his “friend” was when he talked with Xi by phone on May 8. Before the call, he tweeted: “I will be speaking to my friend, President Xi of China, this morning at 8:30. The primary topics will be Trade, where good things will happen, and North Korea, where relationships and trust are building.”

The Chinese reciprocated. Xinhua News Agency reported on the phone call, saying that President Xi attaches “great importance to developing bilateral relations and cherishes his good working relationship with the American president.”

However, something happened in September 2018 that disturbed this happy relationship. Trump, speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, unexpectedly accused China of trying to meddle in the US congressional elections in November. Because of his strong stand on trade, Trump said, China did not want the Republican Party to do well.

“China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election, coming up in November, against my administration,” he said without providing any evidence.

Asked subsequently if Xi remained his friend, Trump replied, “He may not be a friend of mine anymore but I think he probably respects me.”

However, after the two leaders met in Buenos Aires on Dec. 1 to discuss the escalating trade war, Trump was again over the moon: “My meeting in Argentina with President Xi of China was an extraordinary one,” he tweeted. “Relations with China have taken a BIG leap forward! Very good things will happen.”

Trump described his relationship with Xi as “very strong and personal.”

After two months of intense discussions, Trump tweeted that "no final deal will be made until my friend President Xi, and I, meet in the near future to discuss and agree on some of the long standing and more difficult points."

The word “friend” was back. To date, however, an accord is still elusive. When Vice Premier Liu He flew to Washington for an abbreviated 11th round of negotiations on May 9, he carried with him a letter from Xi to Trump.

“He just wrote me a beautiful letter,” Trump said. He later said the Chinese leader had said, “Let’s work together, let’s see if we can get something done.”

It is striking that every time Xi makes a point of being friendly, it is in the context of work, trying to use the friendship to get things done. With Trump, it just seems like puppy love. Trump, for reasons best known to himself, jeopardized his supposedly deep friendship with Xi by making unsubstantiated charges at the United Nations.

By contrast, Trump’s friendship with Japanese leader Shinzo Abe seems more mature. Trump doesn’t let that get in the way of what he considers to be American national interests, such as cutting the trade deficit with Japan. At the same time, knowing of Abe’s relationship with the Iranian leadership, he tries to use that to benefit the United States. Now, that’s diplomatic friendship in action.

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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.