Thu, Apr 20, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Has Trump become soft on China?

By Sushil Seth

Even though China was right, left and center of US President Donald Trump’s withering criticisms during the US presidential election, that stridency was toned down after he took office.

We had the dramatics of the telephone call from President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) congratulating Trump on his election, considered unusual after the US had established diplomatic relations with China in 1979.

Trump wanted to use Taiwan as a lever to reset US-China relations, indicating that such a concession on the part of the US must have a quid pro quo, but when Beijing stood on its “one China” principal, Trump quietly retreated from his much touted position that Taiwan was still somehow an unresolved question in a February telephone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).

During Xi’s recent US visit, the first such contact between the Chinese leader and the new US president, there was much pomp and ceremony, but very little substance. Everything from the South China Sea, to China’s unfair trade advantage, to currency manipulation remained unresolved, though — Trump now believes that China is not a currency manipulator

The Chinese agreed to a “100 day plan”— whatever that means — to address the trade imbalance, but there were no details about how this might be achieved.

“We had a long discussion already. So far I have gotten nothing, but we have developed a great friendship,” Trump said after the first round of talks.

Apparently, apart from their “great friendship” the two leaders failed to make progress on any of the contentious issues between their countries.

However, two important developments occurred during and immediately after Xi’s US visit. One was the US missile attack from a naval strike force in the Mediterranean on a Syrian air base from which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime had reportedly launched a chemical attack on rebel-held territory.

Trump informed Xi of this attack during dessert in a lyrical recount of the US’ power and pinpoint accuracy against the backdrop of the inhuman chemical attack. The US action, according to Trump, was endorsed by Xi.

Whether or not Xi approved of the US action is not clear, as Beijing has not commented, although Chinese leaders did not seem supportive of the Russian backing for al-Assad judging by their abstention from voting against the subsequent UN Security Council resolution.

However, if the naval strike on the Syrian air base was intended to impress the Chinese with US military power that would be questionable because China is not Syria.

What might have surprised China, and indeed other countries, was the willingness of the new US president to challenge Russia, which was supposed to be a new ally in the war against the Islamic State group. That would be worrisome, as it shows the impulsive nature of Trump.

Much more relevant for the Chinese is Trump’s policy toward North Korea, at times put forward via Twitter, as with other important pronouncements, pressing Beijing to use their clout to reign in Pyongyang as it alone has the power to bring sense to the North Korean leadership.

If China failed to do this, the US would act on its own, he said.

Considering that the US has moved its navy closer the Korean Peninsula, telling Beijing and the world that the US might act alone is rather apocalyptic.

“China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t,” Trump said in an interview with the Financial Times. “If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.”

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