Donald Trump’s first meeting with Xi Jinping was all about business
THIS has been an unsettling week for “America First” types. On April 6th their chin-jutting, finger-jabbing champion, President Donald Trump, responded to shocking images of children murdered by chemical weapons in Syria with punitive cruise missile strikes that, in the words of the White House spokesman Sean Spicer, included “a huge humanitarian component”.
To some on the nationalist right, such interventionist talk from Mr Trump was like finding themselves at the ballet when they thought they had tickets for a pro-wrestling tournament. Happily for such America Firsters, Syria was not the only foreign policy test faced by Mr Trump this week. At the same time as he was sending Tomahawk missiles to destroy parked Syrian warplanes and other assets, the president hosted his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on April 6th and 7th at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida home.
And to hear Mr Trump’s team describe the summit, when it came to dealing with China, the president stuck to the hard-headed mercantilism that was one of his greatest hits on the campaign trail. The two-day summit ended without formal conclusions, or even a press conference. Chinese state media coverage revolved around windy rhetoric about win-win partnerships and gushing accounts of the respectful welcome offered to Mr Xi and his wife—with special attention paid to Mr Trump’s young granddaughter, who sang in Mandarin to the visitors from Beijing (the child of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the five-year-old has been learning Chinese from a nanny).
Neither camp suggested that significant concessions had been made, even on such urgent dossiers as North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, could only tell reporters in a post-summit briefing that Mr Xi and his host agreed that North Korean nuclear capabilities had “reached a very serious stage”, and would work together at the United Nations and in the region to push for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. That is another way of saying that the central puzzle of China’s relations with North Korea remains unsolved. China knows that Korean nukes are a threat to its own security, destabilising the region and giving America good cause to maintain armies and arsenals in Asia. China also thinks that the collapse of the North Korean regime would be worse. But North Korea believes that nuclear weapons are vital to its regime’s survival. So leaders in Beijing will put any amount of pressure on North Korea, except that amount which might actually work.
One of the most obviously nonsensical claims Mr Trump made in the campaign involved his promise to walk away from the table if countries like China did not buckle to his demands. In May 2016, in an interview with The Economist, the businessman declared: “We have a lot of power over China economically. Because we are the piggy bank that they keep robbing from.” China needs the American market, he declared: “Excuse me, they can’t walk, we can.”
Alas for President Trump, he is now discovering that he cannot walk away from China any more than China can abandon him. When haggling over a skyscraper, it really is possible to abandon a bad deal: there is always another building to buy down the road. But there is not another China down the road, one more amenable that the one led by Mr Xi. The Middle East does not go away when ignored. North Korea does not become less menacing for being snubbed.
In a joint briefing, Mr Tillerson and his cabinet colleagues Wilbur Ross (at Commerce) and Stephen Mnuchin (at Treasury) described Mr Trump as emphasising arguments about economic fairness and the need to reduce America’s vast trade deficit with China, fast.
Mr Tillerson said: “President Trump noted the challenges caused by Chinese government intervention in its economy and raised serious concerns about the impact of China’s industrial, agricultural, technology, and cyber policies on U.S. jobs and exports. The President underscored the need for China to take concrete steps to level the playing field for American workers, stressing repeatedly the need for reciprocal market access.”
His colleague Mr Ross talked of a 100-day plan to start rebalancing imports and exports, with “way stations” for measuring progress towards opening various sectors of the economy. The Commerce Secretary added that Chinese officials had admitted that their own self-interest might make them willing to budge a bit, because of the impact that Chinese trade surpluses have on their country’s money supply and inflation.
Reporters asked whether Mr Trump and his team had raised co-operation on climate change or the environment—themes which were prominent during the Obama era. Mr Tillerson replied: “That was not a major part of the discussion, nor do I recall the Chinese specifically raising it.”
The Secretary of State, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, an energy firm, also signalled impatience with those calling for America to maintain a separate, specific high-level dialogue around human rights. Mr Tillerson said: “I don’t think you have to have a separate conversation, somehow separate our core values around human rights from our economic discussions, our military-to-military discussions, or our foreign policy discussions. They’re really embedded in every discussion.”
An American president may not be able to choose his own foreign policy agenda as events intrude from the Korean peninsula to Syria. But he can choose those policy areas that he does not care to prioritise.
Mr Trump and his team made clear that they seek a relationship with China based on the cold calculation of interests. An “America First” leader met a “China First” leader. Neither cared to blink and offer early sweeteners involving this infrastructure investment, or that market-opening concession. But nor was either man distracted by lofty talk about saving the planet or strengthening civil society. At some point Mr Trump’s nationalist supporters may want to see concrete proof of jobs being returned or trade gaps closing. But for the moment the sheer hard-headedness of his approach may have to be enough.