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Trump’s visit to Beijing: a lot of shine and little content

The only thing U.S. President Donald Trump achieved during his short-term stay in Beijing was a package of contracts worth $250 billion. He hoped it would be a historic visit, but it wasn’t.

Tall in the saddle and bent under the shield

Currently, Trump is on a tour of Asia. He is planning to visit five countries and to attend three summits. But his visit to China was the highlight of the program.

It preceded the reelection of Xi Jinping as China’s President. Now, Xi is so strong in China that many compare him to Mao Zedong.

So, Xi was tall in the saddle before the meeting unlike Trump who is facing growing pressure at home: before the visit, special counsel Robert Mueller began arresting Trump’s assistants on charges that may send them to jail for years. And even though Trump is clean yet, he is hardly happy.

Pleasant surprise

For Trump, it is important to achieve something during the tour as this would pipe down his enemies at home. And his key trump was Beijing.

China was satisfied with the results of Trump’s visit: “Wonderful… glorious… amazing days…” this is how Chinese mass media qualified the visit. One would thing they meant some results, but they didn’t.

“China should be happy,” said Chen Daoyin, a Shanghai-based political analyst, calling the trip a diplomatic triumph for President Xi Jinping. “The leader of the world’s number one power has just made a pilgrimage to him - this is naturally how all Chinese people will see it.”

“Trump has pleasantly surprised many who a year ago were deeply worried about a trade war given his harsh campaign rhetoric. Trump has also surprised many for his relatively good handling of US-China relations, including forging a close working and personal relationship with President Xi Jinping,” Chen Weihua, the deputy editor of the China Daily’s US edition, added.

Only last year, Fudan University scholar Shen Dingli had suggested closing the Chinese embassy in Washington in protest at Trump’s engagement with Taiwan. After this week’s visit Shen was in a forgiving mood. “More than a success,” the international relations expert said of Trump’s tour. “Trump behaved moderately [and] respectfully ... He showed respect to China’s leader and China’s culture ... Xi has made Trump a better president.”

The front-pages of China’s Communist Party controlled press were plastered with large and identical photographs of the leaders of the world’s top two economies with headlines commemorating how “comrade Xi” and his capitalist caller had agreed “to give full play to the idea of head-of-state diplomacy.”

“Trump has softened his tone toward China on the trade issue,” an editorial in the state-run Global Times newspaper enthused, pointing to the president’s controversial claim that China was not to blame for the trade deficit. The China Daily added that the trip had seen “precious progress” that would “go a long way to anchoring the all-important, yet sometimes volatile, Sino-US relationship”.

Like a drum

Before going from China to Vietnam, Trump said that his talks with Xi were “very productive.” It seems that he really believes in what he says. But he has nothing to boast of except a package of contracts worth $250 billion. However, according to Bloomberg News, many of the contracts are just nonbinding memorandums of understanding – deals that did not need Trump’s visit to be made and that may now need years to be realized. So, Trump has nothing to proud of.

On the other hand, during the visit Trump expressed the United States’ concerns about the human rights and freedom of speech situations in China. But his joint press-conference with Xi was unusual: the Chinese president suggested not answering the journalists’ questions and Trump supported his initiative. In contrast, his predecessor Barack Obama refused in 2014 to take part in a similar press-conference unless the journalists were allowed to ask questions.

But it seems that Trump was right as when he was coming out of the press-conference room, some U.S. reporter shouted a question like "Do you still believe China is raping the United States, Mister President?”

Xi was happy to hear no comments on the situation in the South China Sea: China are seeking control over that strategic and rich sea, while the United States is going to protect the interests of its neighbors.

In the United States, comments will certainly be much different. One of Trump’s critics has already said that “the Chinese are playing President Trump like a drum.”

Before Trump’s meeting with Xi, his advisors said that the key topics would be North Korea and trade. It is not a secret that China buys much less U.S. goods than the United States buys Chinese goods. The huge trade deficit with China is a sore subject not only for Trump but also for his predecessors.

Before leaving for Asia, Trump said that the United States’ trade deficit with China was as big as ever. In Apr 2017, he said that it was $504 billion. Oxford Economics claims that it is just $370 billion but this too is a huge sum. In this light, it was a surprise to hear Trump saying that China was not to blame for the deficit and that he blamed his predecessors for that situation.

It was almost the first time that Trump made a curtsey to anybody. His opponents say that the Chinese played on his vanity: they gave him a VIP treatment and even let him visit the Forbidden City. In fact, he has become the first foreign leader to visit that place in China’s modern history. The Chinese also threw a banquet in Trump’s honor at the Great Hall of the People, the party’s gargantuan ceremonial venue in Tiananmen Square. They laid red carpets everywhere Trump appeared and they organized a military parade for him. The U.S. President was happy.

During his presidential campaign, Trump slated China for “raping” the U.S. economy and called it an “enemy”: "It's one of the greatest thefts in the history of the world, what they've taken out of our country.” In Beijing, he acted as a true diplomat.

When he said that over the previous years, the U.S.-Chinese trade had been “very one-sided and unfair,” the audience in the Great Hall of the People gulped for air expecting one more storm. But instead Trump said that China was not to blame for this. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?”

And once again U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was forced to clarify his boss’s controversial statements. When asked about Trump’s change in tone on China, Tillerson said that he was likely being ironic.

Ely Ratner, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, described the US president’s comments on trade as “by far Trump’s biggest mistake so far on Asia trip”. “Shameful. Terrible message to American workers and the region. Should be red meat for Democrats,” he wrote on Twitter.

During his visit, Trump achieved just a couple of insignificant concessions on trade and this is his only chance to save his face when back home. One of the achievements is Xi’s consent to increase imports from the United States. But experts say that the Chinese leader had planned that long before Trump’s visit.

The Guardian quotes Ratner as adding that Trump’s VIP treatment was a Chinese attempt to flatter and impress the volatile US leader. “It’s clearly an effort to try to get him to back off on some of the more punitive actions that the administration is considering on North Korea and trade and investment,” Ratner said.

That little Chinese trick worked perfectly: Trump was full of compliments. He called Xi a “gentleman” and added: “My feeling toward you is an incredibly warm one.” He also said that there was “great chemistry” between them. Xi was more restrained in expressing his emotions.

According to The Guardian, in his eight-minute address, Trump urged Xi to “act faster and more effectively” to extinguish North Korea’s nuclear “menace”. “I know one thing about your president: if he works on it hard, it will happen,” the US president added, to laughter. “There is no doubt about it.”

Trump thanked Xi for supporting the UN sanctions against North Korea and imposing own ones. Xi made no promises concerning North Korea and Trump had no other way but to express hope that China would be able to lighten the explosive atmosphere in North Korea.

Future is overclouded

It is hard to say what an effect Trump’s visit to China will have on U.S.-Chinese relations – but not so much because there is no information as because Trump is inconsistent in what he says and does. Despite the optimism expressed by Trump and Xi, U.S.-Chinese relations will hardly be cloudless. The point is that even though the U.S. and Chinese economies are deeply interwoven, the sides still have lots of contractions. As Mao once said, revolution is not a banquet. The same is true for relations between two states – even if their leaders swear friendship at dinner.

In Beijing, Trump was unusually idealistic and expressed hope for long years of friendship and joint efforts to solve both bilateral and global problems. But this was not just a dinner talk.

Trump’s isolationism is a real gift for China. No surprise that the Chinese love the U.S. president: his policy allows them to fill the gaps left by America in the global politics.

One of the best example of Trump’s isolationism is his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Coincidence or not, while in Beijing Trump was talking about his focus on America, Syria signed the Paris Agreement. And the United States has been left all alone.

Sergey Manukov

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