November 18, 2016 7:00 pm JST
China up close

Xi Jinping moves to appease Donald Trump

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump

TOKYO -- With Donald Trump's shock victory in the U.S. presidential election still reverberating around the world, President Xi Jinping's regime is carefully seeking to placate the fiery advocate of tough policies toward China.

On the campaign trail, Trump harshly condemned China's trade practices and vowed to designate China as a country manipulating its currency to gain an unfair trade advantage. He also pledged to levy import tariffs of as high as 45% on Chinese products.

Trump, a 70-year-old property tycoon and Republican outsider, defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. He is to be inaugurated as president in January, taking over from Democrat Barack Obama.

The U.S. and China, the world's two largest economies, are at odds over many issues, especially regarding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. In fact, a number of countries circling the body of water are at odds with China regarding its claims there.

While alarmed by Trump's anti-China rhetoric, the Xi regime is now looking at the sea change on the other side of the Pacific as an opportunity to thaw strained relations.

Instead of simply weathering the diplomatic storm, the Communist Party-ruled country is trying to wriggle out of it.

The Xi regime has mobilized China's diplomatic mission in the U.S. and domestic think tanks in a desperate attempt to work out measures to appease the incoming U.S. president and put China in as favorable a diplomatic position as possible.

According to sources familiar with international relations, senior Chinese officials have already gone behind the scenes to get in touch with Trump and members of his inner circle.

Xi also held a telephone conversation with Trump, before Russian President Vladimir Putin did.

Xi sent a congratulatory message to Trump on Nov. 9, then spoke with him via telephone on Nov. 14. A careful look at what was said shows two noteworthy developments.

In June 2013, Xi made his first visit to the U.S. as president. He held lengthy talks with Obama in the desert resort town of Palm Springs, California, and proposed, with fanfare, "a new type of great power relationship" between the two countries.

Unmentioned power relationship

Under former President Hu Jintao, China pledged to pursue "a constructive and cooperative partnership" with the U.S. What Hu meant was partnering with the U.S. to form a multipolar world.

But Xi's proposed "new type of great power relationship" is completely different. It implies that the U.S. and China, the two economic and military powers, will effectively lead and manage the world.

In Palm Springs, Xi also emphatically told Obama, "The vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for the two large countries of China and the U.S."

Xi was essentially telling Obama that China and the U.S. should divvy up the Pacific, in terms of economic interests and military presence.

The Obama administration knew what Xi was getting at and has seen it as unacceptable. Obama has clearly rejected China's territorial ambitions.

No one in the Obama administration has referred to Xi's proposed "new type of great power relationship" since November 2013, a few months after the Chinese president first floated the idea.

Still, Xi has continued to utter the phrase "new type of great power relationship" at every summit he has had with the outgoing president. Chinese state-run media outlets would quote Xi as if the two countries were in agreement on the matter.

Xi made no mention of the power relationship in his congratulatory message or during his phone conversation with Trump.

Taking the next step

Said one expert on international relations: "China policies advocated by Trump [on the campaign trail] are particularly nonsense when it comes to the economic front. On the other hand, dramatic changes now happening in the U.S., including those on the security front, provide China a good chance [to improve bilateral relations].

"China can now carefully think about new phrasing to describe the kind of relations it will pursue with the U.S. under the Trump administration."

There is one more noteworthy point about the telephone conversation between Xi and Trump on Monday.

Five days earlier, in his congratulatory message to Trump, Xi mentioned the need for China and the U.S. to "manage and control differences" between them.

But Xi did not use the same expression during the phone call, according to China's official announcement about the talks. What happened?

Another source familiar with international affairs said that Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., had made contact with Trump behind the scenes two days before Xi phoned Trump.

Cui did so for two purposes. One was to see what specific policies Trump is going to adopt toward China. The other was to arrange the telephone call and ensure that it would be amicable.

As a result of the preparatory contact, "It was no longer necessary for Xi and Trump to touch on the old frictions between China and the U.S. under Obama," the source said.

China is now taking the next step in its efforts to appease Trump. Vice Premier Wang Yang, who is in charge of external economic policies, is due to begin a three-day visit to the U.S. on Monday.

"A strategic mistake"

Wang is supposed to exchange views with senior officials from the Department of Commerce, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and from other government bodies. But the real purpose of his U.S. trip is to further look into Trump's policy toward China.

Wang is tipped as a candidate to become a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party's top decision-making body led by Xi, at next year's national congress.

A successful trip will boost Wang's promotion prospects.

But Wang will not be on a cakewalk. On the campaign trail, Trump labeled China a currency manipulator and threatened to impose prohibitively high import tariffs on Chinese products.

These pledges have resonated with Trump's base, thought to be made up of angry white voters in so-called "rust belt" states that do not have the same prosperous futures to look forward to that their parents did. Trump voters believe the candidate's rhetoric that China has exploited trade pacts to steal jobs from Americans.

On balance, Trump's electoral victory is not all doom and gloom for China.

China can now expect the winds over some important diplomatic issues to change direction. Perhaps Trump will hold the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in high regard. And he has already voiced his disdain for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have put China on the outside of a new kind of global corporatism.

The AIIB is a multilateral institution based in Beijing. Canada's recent decision to join it has left the U.S. and Japan as the only members of the Group of Seven major industrialized countries not involved with the bank.

James Woolsey, a senior national security adviser to Trump and former CIA director, wrote in an English newspaper in Hong Kong that the U.S. should have taken part in the AIIB. He criticized the Obama administration's opposition to it as "a strategic mistake."

Russia or China first?

If the incoming Trump administration actually reverses course on the AIIB, Japan would come under pressure to follow suit. A flourishing AIIB and dead-on-the-vine TPP would significantly impact the Asia-Pacific region.

As for the South China Sea issues, many Chinese officials think Trump will be a pushover. They perceive Trump as a merchant who would never sacrifice commercial interests for national security concerns.

Here, the U.S., Japan and many Southeast Asian countries have put up a united front against China -- or at least they did before May, when the Philippines elected the anti-U.S. Rodrigo Duterte as president.

China says it has historical claims to most of the South China Sea and has been making artificial islands out of small reefs in it.

Although the U.S. and Japan do not claim any islands in the body of water, they have harshly denounced China's "militarization" of it as a threat to freedom of navigation.

Switching gears, there is also anxiety over which country Trump will go to on his first official trip as president.

To be sure, there is much talk of friendly relations between Trump and Russian President Putin. But Xi might have got a head start over Putin; at least he phoned the new president a day before Putin did.

This is why China's diplomatic authorities are feeling a sense of relief. How long this will last is anybody's guess. Many of Beijing's foreign policymakers could soon be wringing their hands again.

So pay close attention to which country the unpredictable Trump visits first after his inauguration. Will it be Russia or China? Or perhaps somewhere in Europe or the Middle East?


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