Li Zhaoxing, China’s foreign minister from 2003 to 2007, has personally encountered six presidents of the US. According to the veteran diplomat, the Sino-US relationship always oscillates between cooperation and competition and the mood often goes in the opposite direction to what is being touted by the politicians.
Take George W Bush who, during the 2000 election, had repeatedly called out China as a “strategic competitor” and even threatened to send troops to Taiwan. However, according to Li’s memoir, shortly after Bush won the election, Bush’s father (a former president) would invite Li to his home for dinner and assure Li, then China’s ambassador to the US, that Beijing shouldn’t lose any sleep over his son’s hawkish “campaign language”.
The same situation might also apply to Donald Trump. The Republican candidate’s election pledges made for grim reading in China, such as his threat to label it as a currency manipulator and impose a 45% tariff on Chinese imports on his first day in office. Then again, a year into Trump’s presidency, none of this has happened. In fact, Trump’s state visit to China this week has not only proven that the Sino-US relationship has remained in pretty good health, Washington has identified a lot of common interests with Beijing as well.
Was there a red carpet this time?
When Barack Obama touched down in Hangzhou for the G20 summit last year, Trump’s predecessor was not even provided with a staircase to leave his plane. The calculated diplomatic snub forced the American leader to disembark from a little-used exit, or as the Guardian newspaper put it, “the ass” of Air Force One.
When Trump arrived at Beijing’s international airport on Wednesday evening, the Chinese had not only rolled out the red carpet but also prepared a so-called “state visit-plus” experience, a term that has not been used for any foreign leader before.
“We have everything that is required for a state visit, but we want more than that,” Chinese ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai told Xinhua ahead of Trump’s arrival.
Apart from the red carpet ceremony, formal talks and banquets, there have also been several informal get-togethers between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, which Xinhua said has created a good atmosphere and personal friendship between the two leaders.
For instance, when the Trumps arrived they were whisked straight to the Forbidden City, which was closed to the public for the occasion. They then had tea with Xi and First Lady Peng Liyuan. The two couples also watched a Peking opera performance before having dinner together.
All of this constituted a major upgrade from Obama’s first visit to Beijing in 2009. The newly elected American president was only given a 45-minute tour of the Forbidden City and he had the Palace Museum’s curator as his tourist guide (not his Chinese counterpart at the time, Hu Jintao).
Trump was upbeat about his host too: “I like him [Xi] a lot. I call him a friend.” Although Xi has never publicly referred to Trump in similarly warm terms, Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the unprecedented welcome was payback for the “considerate” reception offered to Xi in April at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, where the two spent seven hours in talks. “We Chinese people believe that such courtesy calls for reciprocity,” Hua said.
Any hidden diplomatic code?
Chinese diplomats have gone to great lengths to illustrate the long history of friendship between China and the US. Tellingly, Xi’s tea gathering with the Trumps took place at the Baoyuan Building, which was built in 1914 and financed by the Boxer Rebellion indemnity (China’s war compensation paid to the US was returned to finance Chinese students’ education in American colleges. Part of the refunded money was also used to build a college that became the elite Tsinghua University – where Xi himself studied).
The exact location of Trump’s private dinner with Xi on Wednesday night was not announced. However, CNN noted that Trump was the first foreign leader since 1949 to have an official dinner in the Forbidden City (it was scheduled for 25 minutes, but turned out to take more than two hours, Trump said).
A number of Western newspapers suggested Xi was trying to project the glories of imperial China to remind Trump of China’s superpower ambitions. Nevertheless Trump seemed receptive about China’s rise. Indeed, while having tea with Xi, he showed a video of his six year-old granddaughter singing a Chinese song and reciting poetry in Mandarin.
Things started to get serious on Thursday as Trump attended a series of events at the Great Hall of the People. These began with an official welcoming ceremony including the standard guard of honour and a 21-gun salute. Xi and Trump then led their own high-level delegations for a summit. That was followed by a joint press conference.
Trump also found time to meet with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Evidently he had no problem in overcoming the Great Firewall too, as he kept updating his Twitter account during the trip (the social media site is blocked by Beijing).
He didn’t make it to the Great Wall though, leaving the task of climbing China’s most famous structure to Melania, who stayed behind while Trump took off on Friday morning for Vietnam’s Danang for the annual APEC summit. The former model also put herself in focus during the state banquet on Thursday with a Gucci dress that evoked a traditional Chinese style, and was seen as another friendly gesture to the Chinese.
Any big deals signed?
The two dozen or so senior American business executives accompanying Trump to Beijing are likely to return home happy.
Watched over by Trump and Xi at a signing ceremony on Thursday, Xinhua reported that American corporations such as Boeing and General Electric have signed a flurry of commercial agreements that are worth a whopping $253 billion.
One of the headline deals will see China’s state oil major Sinopec team up with Chinese lenders to help develop Alaska’s liquefied natural gas sector. That’s set to involve investment of up to $43 billion, create 12,000 American jobs and cut the US deficit with Asia by $10 billion a year, the US authorities said.
Qualcomm, meanwhile, has sealed three non-binding memorandums of understanding (MOUs) to sell components to Chinese phone makers Xiaomi, OPPO and Vivo.
It is “a miracle”, China’s Ministry of Commerce raved, for the world’s two biggest economies to pull off these deals, which it said had broken every record in the history of world trade.
However, most of the deals are only MOUs and lack much detail.
“President Donald Trump can return to the United States claiming to have snagged over $250 billion in deals from his maiden trip to Beijing,” Reuters noted. “Whether those deals live up to the lofty price tag is another question altogether.”
Over the past few weeks Chinese newspapers have been speculating that China might loosen a key restriction and allow Tesla to become the first foreign automaker to set up a solely-owned factory in Shanghai (currently all foreign car brands have to operate via joint ventures with local Chinese partners). This breakthrough didn’t in fact happen, although Ford and China’s Anhui Zotye Automobile have agreed to invest a combined $756 million to set up a 50-50 joint venture to build electric passenger vehicles.
Trump has also offered something that the Chinese badly want. Most notably, the Federal Aviation Administration has signed an airworthiness certification deal that effectively opens the door for China to sell its C919 aircraft to US airlines. Of course, it remains to be seen whether any American carrier will show any interest in purchasing the made-in-China jets, although Boeing said on Thursday it had signed a deal to sell 260 planes to China worth $37 billion.
So did Trump get what he wanted?
America’s trade deficit – which stood at $347 billion with China last year – is Trump’s favourite bugbear, and once again the deficit with China was high on the American agenda.
“Both the United States and China will have a more prosperous future, if we can achieve a level economic playing field. Right now unfortunately it has been a very one-sided and unfair one,” Trump said at the beginning the speech he gave at the joint press conference with Xi.
However, his tone then shifted dramatically.
“But I don’t blame China. After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit,” Trump said.
Instead of pointing the finger at Beijing, Trump blamed past US administrations “for allowing this trade deficit to take place and to grow”.
Trump is still pressing Beijing over North Korea but also in a far less aggressive manner, at least compared to his tweets on the issue. “We must act fast, and hopefully China will act faster and more effectively on this problem than anyone,” he said at the press conference, before turning to Xi: “I do believe there’s a solution to that, as do you.”
Xi, meanwhile, emphasised China’s commitment to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and, as always, the Chinese leader stressed that solutions ought to be found “through peaceful communication and consultation”.
So was China pleased with how the trip went?
If the visiting American president had been Hillary Clinton rather than Trump, Beijing might have had to grapple with more sensitive issues such as human rights, a topic that was left unspoken during Trump’s state visit. That prompted Antony Blinken, deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration, to write in the New York Times that “Trump is ceding global leadership to China”.
TIME magazine has reached a similar conclusion, proclaiming on the cover of its Asian edition: “China Won”.
Xi’s personal authority has grown ever stronger following the 19th Party Congress. “China now has its strongest leader in decades, and the US has its weakest,” the US magazine reckons, noting that more countries have been following China’s lead in both fostering economic development and tightening control over domestic politics.
China’s state media, meanwhile, preferred to stick with the standard Chinese diplomatic line that Beijing and Washington should be partners and not rivals. “China’s new era is a win-win cooperation for the world,” the People’s Daily suggested.
Xi has stressed he wants to make China great again and the most imminent benchmark is just a few years away: according to the Party’s planners China must become a “moderately prosperous country” by 2020 (a year before celebrating the Party’s 100th anniversary).
By that time, Trump will be seeking reelection as the White House’s occupant. And who knows what may happen three years from now: the Sino-US relationship may yet yoyo back to a more confrontational stance as polling nears. Nevertheless, Beijing policymakers will be happy that this visit has bought them more time and distanced Trump from his campaign rhetoric threatening a trade war.
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