Has Xi charmed Trump?

In pursuit of his "America First" policy, President Donald Trump tends to be blunt, undiplomatic, unsparing and hypercritical of America's friends and foes alike, ruffling many feathers and creating wrinkles in relationships. But he is also known to climb down after raising temperatures; he doesn't mind taking a U-turn. Maybe his bluster and brinkmanship are deliberate tactics to pressure his adversaries and strike favourable deals. This is especially true about Sino-US relations. Trump, the presidential candidate was scathing in his criticism of China during his campaign, accusing Beijing of "currency manipulation" and of "raping the American economy."  

Trump raised eyebrows in the US as well as in China when he publicly wondered why there should be a "one China" policy. Then he hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in April 2017. Trump, after some tough talking in informal settings, climbed downed from his earlier rhetoric and praised Xi and hoped he would rein in North Korea as well as help reduce US-China trade imbalance.

But during his November 8-9 visit to China, Trump's lavish praise for Xi, who has emerged much stronger after the 19th Communist Party Congress, concentrating more power in his hands, without raising issues like human rights, cybersecurity, violations of Intellectual Property Rights and restricted access to the Chinese market has dismayed even his diehard admirers.

Was it the charm offensive of Xi Jinping that had worked on America's billionaire President? After all, Xi rolled out the longest red carpet ever unfolded for a foreign dignitary by China, hosted a lavish reception in the Great Hall of the People, gave Trump and First Lady Melania a sunset tour of the Forbidden City, treated them to a Peking Opera and thence to the first-ever state dinner for a US President inside Forbidden City. Trump called the parade "magnificent" and said of the opera," nothing you can see is so beautiful."

Before Trump's visit, Xi had told US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that he considered the visit of the US President '"as the most important bilateral event" which offered "a major opportunity for the development of China-US relations" and described bilateral relations as "generally stable" and claimed "sound communication" with Trump. Xi had also advised Tillerson that the US and China should "respect each other and focus on cooperation while dealing with differences properly." This sounds similar to China's line to India not to let differences become disputes.

While reiterating that Sino-American trade relations were "very one-sided and unfair - China enjoys a $300 billion trade surplus - Trump refused to blame China for the imbalance. Rather, he gave Beijing
"great credit for taking advantage of American policies for the benefit of Chinese citizens". Instead, he found fault with previous US administrations for "allowing it to get so far out of kilter" and promised to "make it fair" and claimed that it "will be tremendous for both countries."

Chinese and American companies signed MOUs worth $250 billion, including a $83.7 billion investment by China Energy Investment Corp in shale gas, power and chemical projects in West Virginia; $43 billion in a natural gas project in Alaska and $37 billion worth orders for Boeing to supply 260 Boeing 737. If they materialise, these deals would create some 20,000 jobs in America and narrow the trade imbalance a little.

While Xi looked somewhat reserved, no jadu ki jhappi, a la Narendra Modi, Trump was gushing with effusiveness: "my feeling towards you is incredibly warm...we have great chemistry."

Was this bonhomie genuine or put on only to obtain greater Chinese support on North Korea and nudge Beijing towards stricter application of UN sanctions? It will be naive to look at the current state of US-China relations through the prism of North Korea alone. The U-turn in Trump's attitude towards China is a reflection of the cold realisation and appreciation on the part of the US administration of China's evident economic might and growing international political clout and the futility of pursuing a confrontational approach. In a way, it's a grudging acknowledgement and acceptance of China's rise as a global power - virtually equal to America, except in military strength and the possession of nuclear weapons.

The joint statement after the Trump-Modi meet in June said that India and the US reiterate the importance of respecting freedom of navigation, overflight and commerce throughout the region; call upon all nations to resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law; support bolstering regional economic connectivity through the transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment; and call on other nations in the region to adhere to these principles. No guess: the message was for China.

Since he became President, Trump has been talking about trilateral (US-Japan-India) and quadrilateral (US-Japan-India-Australia) strategic cooperation to keep China under check. While it's an attractive concept, it's fraught with inherent weaknesses. For example, notwithstanding serious differences with China on numerous issues, including South China Sea, the US, Japan and Australia are so deeply entrenched with China economically that they cannot rock the boat. Similarly, while Asean members might have territorial disputes with China, they have now, as a group, larger trade with China than with America. In short, no country individually or as a part of a group wishes to challenge China, not even the US. Therefore, Trump might be tempted by the old dictum: if you can't beat them, join them!

On his part, Xi doesn't mind massaging the ego of a flamboyant American President, talk about win-win cooperation and introducing a "new starting point" in the bilateral relationship, that is, mutual accommodation. China will not overtly challenge the US, at least for now, but the US must also not meddle in China's sphere of influence in Asia. Xi reportedly told Trump that the Asia Pacific was big enough to accommodate both the US and China. With China blindly shielding Pakistan, Sino-American cooperation on terrorism looks suspect.

Only time will tell if the new-found Sino-US understanding proves sustainable and what it would mean for India.

(The writer is a former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)

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