President Donald Trump would have achieved a five-star rating during his five-Asian tour. But while one can say that he would easily have breezed through Japan and South Korea, who were more than happy to accommodate him, the China visit looked like a vassal kowtowing to the Chinese emperor.
While some people might suggest that Trump’s “America First” is going to bring the jobs back to the U.S., the fact remains that China continues to bring her products – from paper clips to heavy machineries – to U.S. markets. Meanwhile, U.S. exports to China are at an anemic pace.
It is interesting to note that during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump accused China of currency manipulation. He said that China was “raping” the U.S. through unfair trade practices. And he vowed to straighten things out in Asia. He even took the bold — and daring — step in challenging the “One-China Policy.” However, he stepped back when not even America’s allies agree with him.
In my column, “Trump’s geopolitical miscalculations” (May 12, 2017), I wrote: “After he assumed the presidency, he must have realized that foreign policy – which he had no prior experience – is a complicated and complex game of statesmanship and adroit diplomatic leadership and maneuvering. It must have been a rude awakening for him to recognize that the practice of brinkmanship is quite different from the ‘art of the deal,’ which he proudly claims to be his forte.
“His tough stance against China gave Japan and South Korea, America’s closest treaty allies, a sigh of relief. At last, they have an American president who would stand by them if attacked, unlike Trump’s predecessor, former president Barack Obama, whom he criticized for appeasing China and didn’t do anything to stop China’s construction of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago.
“And to make things worse, he appointed Rex Tillerson to the post of Secretary of State. With no prior experience in foreign policy – or government for that matter – poor Tillerson was thrown into the murky waters of geopolitics. And between him and Trump, how do you think they’d handle bullies like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un in the world stage? They are no ordinary world leaders; they are authoritarian dictators who love to threaten the U.S. with nuclear destruction. In particular, North Korea’s ‘Supreme Leader’ Kim Jong-un seems to have rankled Trump who doesn’t appear to know how to handle the unpredictable Kim.”
After the first Trump-Xi summit at Mar-a-Lago in Florida last April 2016, Trump’s hard-line stance against China melted like marshmallow over a fire. After two days of negotiations, Trump declared that China was not a “currency manipulator” and decided to maintain the status quo on trade issues. That’s a 180-degree turnaround from his position during the presidential campaign.
When Xi went back home, he ordered shipments of coal from North Korea to be turned back. Trump was ebullient when he got the news. He said that China took a “big step” in easing tensions between the two countries. He described his relationship with Xi as one with “good chemistry” and praised Xi for banning North Korean coal.
But that was just about it. Banning coal imports from North Korea was just a ruse to make Trump think that China was doing its end of the bargain. Trump felt so good at what he had achieved at Mar-a-Lago that he virtually ceded control of the South China Sea (SCS) to China. With China calling the shots at SCS, it wouldn’t be long before China begins to populate the islands and deploy missiles, warships, warplanes, and troops. There would be Chinese cities on these islands just like Sansha City on the Paracel Islands, which is contested by Vietnam. Sansha has been designated as a prefecture-level city of Hainan. It administers the Paracel Islands, Scarborough Shoal, Spratly Islands, and Macclesfield Bank.
Meanwhile, North Korea was unperturbed by the Chinese ban on North Korea coal and had launched more than a dozen missile tests including detonating a hydrogen bomb. And Xi didn’t lift a finger to stop Kim, who is out of control.
Showcasing Chinese power
When Trump visited China last week, as part of his five-nation Asian tour, Xi laid out the red carpet for his friend and gave him the royal treatment including a rare official dinner in the Forbidden City and a grand welcoming ceremony featuring hundreds of cheering children in front of the Great Hall of the People.
The whole event made the Mar-a-Lago welcoming ceremony for Xi looked like a meeting of two business leaders, which was pretty much what it was.
The welcoming ceremony in Beijing turned out to be more of a showcase of Chinese power and prestige, choreographed for the American viewers, specifically, and the international community, in general. It was a demonstration of Chinese hospitality at its best, and it was orchestrated to project China’s emerging role as a world superpower. A visitor who shows disrespect for the Chinese host would be violating Chinese hospitality customs.
But while the desired effect might have been to show China and America as co-equals, the end result was that Trump handed world leadership to Xi simply by giving what China wants, which is “respect on the global stage” and as a co-equal. During their bilateral meeting, Xi told Trump, “The Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both China and the U.S.” He said the same thing to Obama during their summit in California in June 2013. Global Times, a Chinese state-run, said Trump “seems to be pragmatic on his Beijing policy, and has no interest in ideological diplomacy.” But Trump could have graciously responded to Xi’s suggestion without disrespecting Xi, and asserted America’s preeminence in the Indo-Pacific Region.
Unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump did not raise the issue of human rights, knowing that China’s ideology is not compatible with human rights. “He hasn’t used the issue of human rights to make trouble for China so far, and this means the Sino-US relationship can focus on substantive matters,” Global Times said.
But what wiped out any credibility Trump had was when he told his Chinese audience, “I don’t blame China, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens. I give China great credit,” Trump said. He said that what criticism he had for China on trade imbalances was caused by U.S. policy, not Chinese.
In a joint speech, Trump heaped praises on Xi, saying the American people were “very proud” of him and hailing the “very good chemistry” between the two of them. Then he blamed past American administrations for China’s huge trade surplus with the U.S. He then saluted Xi for leading China that he said had left the U.S. “so far behind.” He also said that he could not blame the Chinese for taking advantage of weak American trade policy. Then he said that he was confident that Xi could defuse the threat from North Korea. Didn’t he try that at Mar-a-Lago before… and failed? Xi, on the other hand refused to take questions from American journalists. Why?
However, behind closed doors, American officials said, “Mr. Trump forcefully confronted Mr. Xi about the chronic trade imbalances between the two countries. He also pressed China to take tougher measures toward North Korea, including a suspension of oil shipments.” However, Xi did not make significant concessions, just like what happened at their Mar-a-Lago summit.
Which makes one wonder: “What exactly did Trump accomplish in China? On trade, there were no substantial agreements that would address the trade imbalances. On the North Korea dilemma, Trump consigned to China the responsibility of stopping North Korea, which we know that’s not going to happen simply because China needs North Korea as a buffer against South Korea and the U.S. On global leadership, Trump relinquished ceded it to Xi. Trump has put an end to Pax Americana and what we’re seeing is the emergence of Chinese hegemony — Pax Sinica.
And the only thing that Trump accomplished was that he makes a fool of himself again, which has become so frequent that some people call him, “moron-in-chief.”