One surprising thing about John Bolton’s new ‘tell-all’ book about the Trump administration (from which he resigned last September) is that the first nine chapters of The Room Where It Happened barely mention China at all.
In these initial 284 pages the country only crops up in reference to other foreign policy conversations.
For instance, when Bolton is asked by President Trump about the chances of war with North Korea in late 2017, the author responds, “I said I thought it all depended on China, but probably fifty-fifty.”
After he becomes National Security Advisor Bolton also takes a guess at what Chinese leader Xi Jinping is advising his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un too. He imagines Xi telling Kim: “If you proceed down this road of negotiations with the Americans, you’re going to be hanging from a tree in Pyongyang before too long. I guarantee it. Stick with me. All you have to do is keep hiding your nuclear weapons, missiles and production facilities.”
Xi also makes a tangential appearance in relation to a momentous 2018 US policymaking decision on Iran. Bolton describes a phone call between the two leaders: “Trump said he would be making a statement on Iran shortly and asked, in an almost childlike way, if Xi wanted to know what he would say. Xi said it sounded like Trump wanted to tell him, a completely on-target insight. Trump, in a ‘why not’ moment, said that feeling trust in confiding in Xi, he was terminating the nuclear deal [the one agreed by the Obama administration in 2015].”
China also briefly comes up in conversation in a lunch with former UK leader Theresa May, where Trump regales her with his fond memories of a trip to Beijing in November 2017. The US president says he was delighted to be greeted “by a hundred thousand soldiers,” Bolton recalls. ‘There’s never been anything like it before in the history of the world,” Trump is also said to have told May.
If the first half of the book is light on mentions of China, that is rectified in chapter 10, which is entirely about Sino-US relations.
Bolton is a hawk on China, regretting Washington’s policy of engagement that helped ease China’s rise over the past three decades. And while he says he is a free trader, he doesn’t feel China has ever played by the same rules. “I particularly agreed that China had gamed the system. It pursued mercantilist policies in the supposedly free trade World Trade Organisation, all the while stealing US intellectual property and engaging in forced technology transfers that robbed us of incalculable capital and commerce over decades,” he writes.
Of his former boss he adds, “Trump in some respects embodies the growing US concern about China… Trump frequently says explicitly that stopping China’s unfair economic growth at US expense is the best way to defeat China militarily, which is fundamentally correct.”
Hence when newly appointed as National Security Advisor he fully approves when Trump instructs his trade negotiation team that: “You’re going to China to kick their ass.”
Bolton senses hawkishness too in other Oval Office conversations: “In private, Trump said both China and Russia were threats, which I wish the press could have heard.”
However, Bolton characterises the administration’s China policy as “completely chaotic” and largely subordinated to Trump’s desire for a trade deal and re-election.
Bolton says the president also gets confused by the rival voices around him: “His advisors are badly fractured intellectually. The administration has panda huggers like [Treasury Secretary Steven] Mnuchin; confirmed free traders like [head of the National Economic Council Larry] Kudlow and China hawks like [Commerce Secretary Wilbur] Ross, [US Trade Representative Robert] Lighthizer and [Director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Peter] Navarro.”
Bolton gets an early idea of Trump’s leadership style during his second week on the job, in a discussion about ZTE, the Chinese telecoms equipment firm that the US Commerce Department was blocking from doing business with American firms (see WiC406 for more background). As NSA he is listening in on a call with Xi and recalls:“Trump began by complaining about China’s trade practices, which he believed were so unfair, and said China needed to buy more US agricultural products. Xi actually raised ZTE first, and Trump called our actions very strong, even harsh. He said he had told Ross to work something out for China. Xi replied that if that were done, he would owe Trump a favour and Trump immediately responded he was doing this because of Xi. I was stunned by the unreciprocated nature of the concession… This was policy by personal whim and impulse.”
According to the author, Trump was conflicted between what he saw as a strong personal relationship with Xi and his growing suspicion that the Chinese would like him to lose this year’s presidential election.
Bolton witnessed a couple of summits between the two leaders and listened in on several more phone calls.
He evidently took copious notes, describing the scene at one gathering on the sidelines of the Buenos Aires G20 in November 2018: “Dinner started at five forty-five and lasted until eight o’clock. Xi began by telling Trump how wonderful he was, laying it on thick. Xi read steadily through note cards, doubtless all of it hashed out arduously in advance planning for this summit. For us, the President ad-libbed, with no one on the US side knowing what he would say from one minute to the next. One highlight came when Xi said he wanted to work with Trump for six more years, and Trump replied that people were saying the two-term constitutional limit should be repealed for him. I was aware of no such chatter… in a subsequent telephone conversation on December 29, Xi said expressly that China hoped Trump would have another term by amending the Constitution so he could stay longer.”
At the Buenos Aires dinner Trump then agreed not to raise tariffs any further, setting a 90-day period for further negotiations, and leaving many of the structural issues to be worked out at an unspecified point. “It was breathtaking,” Bolton notes of the concessions. “The Chinese probably hoped the dinner would go on all night.”
He also observed that the Chinese “perked up and smiled” when Trump said that his son-in-law Jared Kushner would have a senior role in the trade deal.
The talks began to unravel a few months later when Washington accused Beijing of backtracking on important aspects of the deal. “The Chinese reneged on several key elements of the emerging agreement, including all the key ‘structural issues’ that were really the heart of the matter… Lighthizer said the Chinese had retreated widely on specific commitment they had made, such as amending existing regulations, repealing statutes and passing new ones (for example, to protect intellectual property).”
Last May – when news broke that the trade talks were falling apart and Washington was complaining of Beijing reneging – WiC postulated that China’s senior leaders probably balked when they saw a Chinese translation of the agreement between the negotiating teams. One major reason: the proximity to the centenary of the May Fourth Movement, when a chronically weak China had seen its sovereignty impugned by foreign powers in 1919. The kind of legal changes that Bolton had suggested above were exactly the sort of extraterritorial reach that would rile China’s more nationalistic types and make Xi look weak in the face of foreign demands (see issues 450 and 451).
Bolton vindicates this theory in his book. At the Sino-US summit held at the Osaka G20 last June, this was precisely the line of argument the Chinese leader took for why the terms were unacceptable: “Out of nowhere, Xi answered by comparing the impact of an unequal deal with us to the ‘humiliation’ of the Treaty of Versailles, which had taken Shandong province from Germany but which had given it to Japan,” he writes. “Xi said with a straight face that if China suffered the same humiliation in our trade negotiations, there would be an upsurge of patriotic feeling in China… Trump manifestly had no idea what Xi was referring to.”
That said. after some frosty exchanges, Xi eventually agreed to restart the trade talks. “ ‘You’re the greatest Chinese leader in three hundred years!’” Trump exulted, amending it a few minutes later to Xi being ‘the greatest leader in Chinese history’.”
Bolton has two or three more meaty revelations. On a Xi-Trump phone call on June 18, the US leader mistakenly thought his counterpart was accusing the Democrats of trumpeting a new ‘Cold War’. Trump “then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming US presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win. He stressed the importance of farmers, and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome,” Bolton recalls. “I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.”
There’s another bombshell at the opening dinner of the Osaka meeting, when Xi explained to Trump why he was building detention camps in Xinjiang. “According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which he thought exactly the right thing to do. [Deputy National Security Advisor] Pottinger told me Trump said something very similar during the 2017 trip to China,” Bolton reports.
But potentially the most significant anecdote that the author shares relates to Taiwan, given the increasingly bellicose talk surrounding the island: “One of Trump’s favourite comparisons was to point to the tip of one of his Sharpies and say, ‘This is Taiwan,’ then point to the Resolute desk and say ‘This is China’.” A little later Bolton adds: “Taiwan very much wanted a free trade deal with the US, which generated absolutely no interest I could discern.”
Indeed, in Bolton’s record, Trump showed little interest in Taiwan, a fact that readers of the book in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound will probably consider the most telling revelation of all.
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