What is Beijing’s assessment of US President Donald Trump?
Chinese experts on the US see him as a mere businessman, a pragmatist who will make deals with China and refrain from criticizing its human rights record, and as an isolationist who pays little attention to geopolitics and will withdraw from the Asia-Pacific region.
They think the US will weaken under his guard and its global influence will wane, giving China the opportunity to fill the vacuum and take over as world leader.
Nevertheless, Trump accepted a telephone call from President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), does not play by Beijing’s rules, questions Beijing’s “one China” principle and its establishment of military bases in the South China Sea and has said that China is manipulating the yuan exchange rate and being mercantilist.
This has alarmed Beijing’s leaders, who no longer know how to react.
In the wake of Trump’s election, Beijing sent officials and businesspeople to Trump’s headquarters in New York to test the waters.
The most senior of these officials is former Chinese minister of foreign affairs and State Councilor Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪). Yang did not meet Trump in person, nor was he able to establish a direct channel with the Trump administration’s national security team.
On Jan. 11, Beijing put on a smile and announced its Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation white paper as an expression of its willingness to work with the US to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.
Beijing has also tried to offer concessions to Trump’s family in order to circumscribe the administration’s China policy.
Anbang Insurance Group Co, which is run by Chinese “princelings” — offspring of senior Chinese officials — has been buying US companies, and earlier this month it was reported that Anbang chairman Wu Xiaohui (吳小暉) had met with Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, which the company owns. The aim of the meeting was to discuss joint redevelopment of New York’s 666 Fifth Avenue, which is owned by the Kushner family’s real-estate empire.
Wu is married to a granddaughter of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), and his main partner in the US is Blackstone chief executive Stephen Schwarzman, who is also chairing Trump’s business council. Blackstone recently sold assets worth US$12 billion to Anbang and HNA Group, a Chinese conglomerate headquartered in Haikou, Hainan Province.
At a meeting with Trump on Jan. 9, Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma (馬雲) pledged to create 1 million jobs in the US over the next five years, causing Internet users to say that “he’s an even bigger braggadocio than Trump.”
Early this month, Trump’s daughter Ivanka attended the Chinese embassy’s Lunar New Year festivities, and Bloomberg also reported that her husband, Kushner, had on several occasions met with Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai (崔天凱).
It is clear that Beijing is using the back door in an attempt to “offer tribute” and induce the Trump administration to bring about changes in the US-China relationship.
On Feb. 8, Trump sent a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) expressing his hope for a constructive relationship between the two countries. That was followed by a telephone conversation, during which they discussed bilateral diplomatic and economic relations, as well as global issues.
The topic that international media outlets have been paying most attention to is Trump’s acceptance of the “one China” policy, which was quickly described by some reporters as a great concession by Trump, when in fact he was merely being diplomatic before continuing to adhere to his tough approach.
According to a White House statement: “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘one China’ policy.”
US officials and experts understand that the US’ “one China” policy is different from Beijing’s “one China” principle, as the US only recognizes that the People’s Republic of China represents China, but does not accept Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. The US is also opposed to the use of force to annex Taiwan or change the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait.
Smooth development of the US-China relationship will also depend on Beijing’s response to the issues mentioned by Trump, such as the militarization of the South China Sea, the yuan exchange rate, the opening up of the Chinese market and the denuclearization of North Korea.
Beijing was not happy with Trump’s White House meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — which took place just hours after Trump’s conversation with Xi — nor was it happy with Trump’s invitation to Abe and his wife to visit his Palm Beach estate, his promise to strengthen security cooperation between the US and Japan and his confirmation that the US is bound to protect the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkakus in Japan — which are the subject of a sovereignty dispute.
Beijing has underestimated and misinterpreted Trump’s preferred direction on national security and diplomacy issues. Trump’s advisers have said his strategy is to focus on achieving “peace through strength,” which is to be achieved by putting an end to the shrinking military budget of his predecessor Barack Obama and increasing the number of navy vessels from 274 to 350.
On Jan. 9, the US Navy announced its surface force strategy, called “Return to Sea Control,” which stresses that the US must “strengthen naval power at and from the sea” to maintain its sea control in response to the threat posed by the Chinese and Russian navies.
Parris Chang is a professor emeritus of political science at Pennsylvania State University and a former deputy secretary-general of the National Security Council.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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