Who is going to win the battle on China policy at the White House? On one side are men like Gary Cohn, Donald Trump’s chief economic advisor, and Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary. Taking a more conciliatory view of relations with the Chinese, they fear the disruption that trade conflict will bring.
In the other camp are hawks like Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, and Peter Navarro, head of the newly formed National Trade Council. They want a more combative approach and are itching to confront the Chinese. Only a year ago Bannon was predicting that the two countries would soon be at war in the South China Sea, while Navarro’s views are summed up in the titles of three of his books: Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World; Death by China: Confronting the Dragon; and The Coming China Wars: Where They Will Be Fought and How They Can Be Won.
Where Trump stands on China is a matter of debate. At best he can be described as mercurial, one moment threatening to break with longstanding policy (see WiC349) but the next appearing to back down.
With the diplomatic signals so confused, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner seems to be playing an increasingly influential role, as it was the 36 year-old that prepared the stage for Trump’s meeting with Xi Jinping in Florida that began yesterday. This is the first meeting between the two presidents since Trump took office. Kushner has worked the diplomatic back channels with a small group of Chinese officials clustered around Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the US.
Reportedly Kushner has been taking advice from Henry Kissinger for weeks and the veteran diplomat favours a softer tone with Beijing, persuading Trump to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to the One-China Policy in his phone call to Xi Jinping in February. Cui and Kushner are also reputed to have been the key organisers for Xi’s Florida visit.
Yet if Kushner is to be the driving force in forging ties, he will have to overcome a glaring shortfall in diplomatic experience. Edward Luce of the Financial Times was representative in highlighting the disparity this week, comparing Cui, “a professional diplomat who knows America well”, with a man whose “chief qualification is that he is married to the president’s daughter.”
That said, Kushner’s personal connection to power could strike more of a chord with his Chinese counterparts, whose political culture often draws on dynastic links. “From a Chinese perspective, Kushner’s role in the White House is a clannish arrangement that they know well,” Evan Osnos explained in the New Yorker this week.
The early indications are that Kushner’s influence is outreaching that of the State Department, for instance, whose head Rex Tillerson was widely pilloried for parroting platitudes during a trip to Beijing last month (see WiC359).
Trump has talked much tougher about China and he continues to depict relations between the two countries as tense, tweeting before his meeting with Xi that it would be a “very difficult one” because the US can “no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses”. But a confrontation over trade looked unlikely in the lead-up to this summit – observers reckoned that until the internal squabbling in Trump’s team has been resolved and the Commerce Department finishes its study on trade deficits later this year, bold action would be delayed. Trump implied as much in an interview with the Financial Times, explaining: “I don’t want to talk about tariffs yet, perhaps the next time we meet.”
In the meantime the summit will give the Chinese more of a chance to assess the strengths of the factions battling for Trump’s ear. It will also allow for a glimpse of whether Kushner really holds the influence that many have inferred. Yet as the world waits to see if Trump does something unexpected during Xi’s 25 hours in Florida, the Chinese protocol experts are most concerned about the moments where the pair appear live on television together (and where there is the potential for Xi to be embarrassed by one of the Donald’s ad hoc remarks). Then again, Trump behaved diplomatically during the pair’s first evening together. Having promised on the campaign trail to serve Xi a Big Mac, he opted for steak instead.
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