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Trump's Asian Visit

Was Trump's China trip more than a spectacular show?

Mutual ego-stroking will not be enough to offset growing disillusionment

| China
The U.S.-China summit was a success in presenting a spectacular show.   © Reuters

Although many difficult issues separate presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, the leaders of the world's two biggest economies found great chemistry with each other when they met in Beijing last week and avoided any public finger-pointing over trade or North Korea. Was it all too good to be true?

Both Xi and Trump doubtless wanted to make the state visit a success. Having consolidated his personal power at the 19th Communist Party Congress just last month, Xi was eager to assert that China deserves a place on the world stage worthy of respect as a big power. China's relationship with the U.S. is its most consequential but also its most difficult to manage, particularly now given Trump's unpredictability.

In coming to Asia, Trump hoped to forget his many political troubles back home while demonstrating his skills as a dealmaker to extract significant trade concessions from China, seeing this as a way to rehabilitate his tarnished domestic reputation and rack up accomplishments to offset his threadbare policy achievements so far.

His Chinese hosts, the descendants of mandarins who practiced the art of pleasing emperors for thousands of years, knew how to show hospitality and make him feel good. Painting the reception for Trump as an unusually enthusiastic tribute for a respected foreign friend, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. described it in advance as a "state visit plus." Trump's reception included a sunset tour of the Forbidden City, a full-dress military parade, a 21-gun salute and an elaborate banquet at the Great Hall of the People off Tiananmen Square.

To further give Trump face, Beijing staged a signing ceremony, witnessed by both state leaders, involving more than $250 billion worth of deals. Chinese media hailed the tally as a "historical high."

A happy American

Beijing's attempts to massage Trump's ego worked. Though he had been eager to demonstrate his toughness and wring concessions from Beijing before his trip, Trump simply gave up at the summit. Speaking at the Great Hall, Trump thanked Xi for his "absolutely terrific" welcome and said he harbored "incredibly warm" feelings toward the man who was now China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Calling the military parade "magnificent," Trump told Xi, "you are a very special man" and said he felt "great chemistry" between them. Trump thanked Xi on Twitter for "an unforgettable afternoon and evening" at the Forbidden City and posted up a photo of the two of them together even though Twitter is banned in China.

Far from demanding concessions to reduce China's huge trade surplus with the U.S., Trump cast blame on his U.S. predecessors, saying that he could not fault the Chinese for taking advantage of weak American trade policy. Indeed, Trump saluted Xi for leading a country that he said had left the U.S. "so far behind." Pushing on the North Korean issue, Trump said he believed Xi could fix the situation "easily and quickly.... if he works on it hard."

The Chinese leadership, too, was pleased with the summit. Although Xi did not gush in personal terms, he spoke of "win-win" cooperation and a "new starting point" for the bilateral relationship. With the promise of $250 billion in contracts, China managed at least to buy time on aggressive U.S. trade actions.

Trump had placed his bet on flattering Xi, coming to Beijing as a kind of supplicant needing help on North Korea and other critical issues. This approach too showed results.

The Global Times, a state-owned newspaper, declared that Trump "respects our head of state." A report by the official Xinhua News Agency called Trump's visit "even more important" than that of then-president Richard Nixon in 1972 because of the "shared interests that Xi has spoken so much about." People's Daily declared the summit "an important success with rich fruits," claiming agreement had been reached on several longstanding Chinese demands, such as the deportation of Chinese criminal suspects.

Backlash at home

Despite the pageantry, Trump's visit was not well-received back home. In particular, Trump's blaming of his predecessors, rather than Beijing, for the trade deficit drew sharp criticism. "The president may not blame China, but I do, and so do millions of Americans who voted for him and others who have lost their jobs at the hands of China's rapacious trade policies," said Senator Charles Schumer. "After campaigning like a lion against China's trade practices, the president is governing like a lamb." Winston Lord, a former ambassador to China, complained that Trump was helping to "make China great again."

U.S. media reports meanwhile questioned the $250 billion of deals, finding the tally to be a mix of existing contracts and non-binding agreements that would take years to materialize if at all and noting the absence of commitments to market openings or to putting additional pressure on North Korea.

The backlash goes beyond disapproval of Trump and his policies but also relates to increased scrutiny of the long-term policy of engagement with China that started under Nixon. It was premised on the idea that open U.S. markets, the commitment of technology and investment, and a downplaying of trade and human rights concerns were an acceptable price to see China modernize, liberalize and become a "responsible stakeholder" in the U.S.-led international system.

But the Chinese have not rallied around the promise of greater openness and liberalism, but instead to greater wealth, power and global clout. Many Americans are concerned that China is striving to oust the U.S. as the dominant power in East Asia. Some have declared the failure of engagement and called for containment.

These shifting sentiments were partially responsible for Trump's election victory in 2016. Indeed, many in the opposition Democratic Party are in agreement with Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, that the U.S. is now in an economic war with China and has done far too much to facilitate China's rise. These people no longer embrace the idea that with time China will become more liberal like America and are comfortable with making China uncomfortable.

Both Trump and Xi may feel that the summit in Beijing built bilateral goodwill that can help produce positive outcomes down the road. But for many in the U.S., the trip was more of a spectacle. For these skeptics, Chinese promises of a quarter trillion of business deals is only a palliative rather than a solution for the diplomatic and trade problems between the two countries.

Trump has to be more consistent in engaging with Chinese leaders to make substantial progress on bilateral trade, North Korea and other issues he cares about. Such proof that he is true international deal-maker however would require a great commitment of resources and strategic thinking and the coherent presentation of a China policy, all of which have been in short of supply from the Trump administration.

Suisheng Zhao is a professor at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies and director of its Center for China-US Cooperation as well as editor of theJournal of Contemporary China.

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