SEOUL – When it comes to China, there are two Donald Trumps.
As a candidate, Trump repeatedly hammered China, charging that Beijing had “rape[d] our country” with unfair trade and currency practices and threatening tariffs as high as 45 percent on Chinese imports. He also vowed to brand the country a currency manipulator on his first day in office.
But as president, Trump has shelved the currency idea and declined – for now – to slap stiff tariffs on Chinese exports. Meanwhile, he has cultivated what White House aides describe as genuinely warm friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, for whom he has had nothing but flattering words.
Trump has even likened his communist counterpart, who was reinstalled last month for a second five-year term, to an Asian king.
“He’s a powerful man. I happen to think he’s a very good person,” Trump said of Xi on Fox Business Network last month. He added that “people say” the two men have “the best relationship” of any two presidents, even though “some people might call [Xi] the king of China.”
The softer tone — which infuriates Trump’s some of populist supporters — reflects what U.S. officials and experts call the blunt reality of Chinese power. The nation of 1.4 billion boasts Asia’s biggest army in Asia and the world’s second largest economy. It may also reflect Trump’s pattern of admiration for “strong” leaders from Russia to Turkey to Egypt; Xi has mounted a major crackdown against political dissent and rival power centers.
Trump still occasionally talks tough—as he did in a press conference in Japan ahead of his Wednesday arrival in Beijing for what the Chinese are grandly billing as a “state visit-plus.” Trump complained in Tokyo about a “very unfair” trade relationship between the U.S. and China. “We’ve already started discussions with China because it has to come down,” Trump said, though he offered no specifics.
But so far the result is a Trump policy that looks similar to the status quo of the Obama administration, which balanced cooperation with China alongside efforts to check its regional aggression.
That could change after the Trump team completes a China policy review which is still underway, according to U.S officials—and if Trump loses patience with Chinese pledges to more sharply limit trade with North Korea.
But for now, the Trump approach is “similar to the many cooks in the kitchen under the Obama administration, with Defense doing one piece, Commerce and trade folks doing another,” said Ian Bremer, president of the Eurasia Group.
And few observers expect Trump to rock the boat on the ground in Beijing, where Trump will be seeking Xi’s continued help with the effort to stop North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program. Before Trump’s departure, administration officials and outside advisers cautioned him that harsh unscripted rhetoric could have dangerous consequences for the already-tense nuclear showdown on the Korean peninsula.
Trump has struck an uncharacteristically moderate tone on the trip, saying during his stop in Seoul that North Korea should “come to the table” and discuss giving up nuclear weapons—a break from his prior insistence that diplomacy was a waste of time.
Though a visit to Beijing might seem a natural time to confront Xi over economic issues, experts tracking the issue expect Trump to downplay his threat of tariffs in the name of national security.
It’s a concession that some key Trump allies call understandable.
“In the balance between North Korean nuclear weapons and trade, that’s not even a question,” said former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, who has spoken often to Trump about foreign affairs.
Administration officials stressed that Trump has not ruled out imposing tariffs on key Chinese exports form solar panels to steel and aluminum. But several top administration officials have urged the president to rule out a scorched-earth strategy that involves across-the-board harsh tariffs.
Trump’s chumminess with Xi blossomed during the Chinese president’s April visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, where they chatted over what Trump called “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen.
That sort of talk has some close Trump allies fuming behind the scenes, according to outside advisers to the White House. They would like to see Trump challenge Xi on Chinese economic policies.
Those allies are closely tracking the fate of White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, the biggest China critic left in the administration. Navarro was notably blocked from attending the Asia trip.
But Trump officials have discussed specific areas on which they plan to send China firm messages, including cyber security and intellectual property theft. Trump’s later stops in southeast Asia are also expected to be venues for a tough line on Chinese regional aggression.
Many analysts said it’s too early to judge Trump’s China policy, noting that the administration’s policy review is still underway.
“I don’t think we should expect that just because we have smooth sailing this is going continue into next year,” said Nick Consonery, an expert in China macroeconomic research at the Rhodium Group, a consulting firm.
Meanwhile, Trump’s advisers are trying to maintain close relations with China while pursuing an Asia strategy – pushing for a “free and open Indo-Pacific region – that appears aimed at challenging Beijing’s dominance in the region.
Keenly aware of how the strategy could complicate the trip, administration officials are sensitive to the notion that its new emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region is aimed at containing China.
“Containment, certainly not,” a senior administration official said.
During a press conference on Monday, Trump was pressed about whether his push for a “free and open” Indo-Pacific would inevitably lead to a clash with China.
“As far as China is concerned, my relationship, as you know, with President Xi is also excellent. I like him a lot. I consider him a friend. He considers me a friend,” he said. “With that being said, he represents China; I represent the United States. His views are different on things, but they’re pretty similar on trade.”
Experts who have tracked the rise of the “Indo-Pacific” trope said it generally refers to respect for sovereignty, the rule of law, open markets, fair and reciprocal trade, freedom of navigation and private sector-led economic growth.
“While the Trump administration will say it isn’t aimed at China, there’s no doubt that it is designed to provide an alternative to a China-led order in Asia,” said Ely Ratner, who advised former Vice President Joe Biden on Asia. “It will contrast sharply with the happy talk we’ll hear when Trump is in Beijing, but I think over time the ‘Indo-Pacific’ framing will eclipse the China-centric approach we’ve seen to date.”
Restuccia reported from Beijing and Johnson reported from Washington.
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