As president Trump’s Asia tour comes to a close, the assessments have begun on what was certainly the trip’s highlight, Trump’s meeting the Chinese president Xi Jinping.
The meeting had important relevance for the full range of American interests, from international trade deals, to America’s trade deficit, and of course North Korea.
Regarding America’s one-to-one relationship with China, Trump focused on the trade deficit, or in other words, the fact that the US buys exponentially more from China than China buys from it. Trump has long maintained that the two countries’ relationship is incredibly one-sided in China’s favor. Trump repeated this long-standing charge late last week stating that U.S.-Chinese trade relations are “very one-sided and unfair.” The president added that “I don’t blame China. Who can blame a country that is able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.”
In this regard, Trump came in as the clever businessman, admiring his “adversary” for gaining the upper hand, while putting it out there that he meanwhile intends to assert his own self-interest. To this end, Trump was able to solidify quite a few deals for American manufacturers. The dollar value of those deals is reportedly in excess of $250 billion. Caterpillar, Boeing, and Goldman Sachs are just some of the several dozen US companies that will now be diving into new Chinese ventures.
While these numbers may sound impressive, it is far from a complete solution to the American trade deficit with China. As Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson pointed out: “Quite frankly, in the grand scheme of a $300–500 billion trade deficit, the things that have been achieved thus far are pretty small.”
In regards to North Korea, Trump told reporters in a joint press conference with President Xi that the two countries shared the goal of “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Xi, however, did not make a big issue of North Korea and certainly did not make an indication of concrete plans to oppose aggression from Pyongyang.
In all, what emerged from the meeting was Xi nodding in agreement to Trump’s various demands in a non-committal sort of way, so that the Chinese leader could drive home the main issue on his mind, namely, China maintaining dominance in its sphere of influence.
China wants to express this dominance in a few important ways.
These include, for instance, the continued control of the South China Sea, a waterway that carries trillions of dollars of goods every year, and is currently under dispute between several of the region’s nations including China, Vietnam, and Malaysia. When asked about his position on this dispute during a stop in Vietnam, Trump kindly offered to be a mediator for the disagreement, while avoiding taking sides.
Another hot topic is preventing the recognition of Taiwan as an independent country, what state officials refer to as the “One China” policy. Trump made Xi uneasy when he accepted a call from Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen congratulating him for his election victory.
But perhaps the most important way in which China holds control of the region is through manipulating North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. As a “fellow” communist regime, and also Pyongyang’s biggest trading partner, China is perceived - probably correctly - as the only country capable of controlling the rogue nuclear regime. The last thing China wants to see is the US asserting its influence over North Korea by force. The nightmare scenario for China would be the toppling of the powers-that-be in North Korea and their replacement by an America-aligned government.
For this reason, it is in China’s highest interest to play down any talk of taking a hardline stance against Kim, which seems to be the current American strategy.
In all, Trump’s hoped-for achievements during his trip have little to do with Xi’s long-term aspirations for China, while his position on the volatile issue of North Korea in many ways runs contrary to them. We can be hopeful that the interests of these two leaders may find some point of intersect. Xi very well may acquiesce to Trump’s request to assist him in dealing with the Kim regime, if only to keep it quiet so that he and his socialist country can continue undistracted in dominating the region.