US President Donald Trump’s hands, notably small in size, have often hogged the limelight in his meetings with foreign dignitaries. First, there was the 19-second scrimmage with Shinzo Abe during which Trump kept vigorously tugging the Japanese premier’s unsuspecting extremity, causing him evident discomfort. Then came the joust with Justin Trudeau, which the Canadian leader had reportedly come prepared for, yet barely managed to survive. The president’s incorrigible limbs were even more conspicuous in their refusal to cooperate during the tete-a-tete with Angela Merkel: despite prodding, Trump did not shake the German chancellor’s hands.
A regular clasp-quiver-and-disengage handshake with President Xi Jinping therefore came as a relief for the protocol managers. For analysts, though, it was also a tell-tale sign that Trump was backing down from his bellicose posture vis-a-vis China during his presidential campaign. And it wasn’t the only indication either. Trump met Xi at his Mar-a-Lago retreat on April 6 and promptly announced that the two great nations were going to have a “very, very great relationship”. This was a far cry from his campaign days, during which Trump had accused China of “raping” the US economy by creating a huge bilateral trade deficit, threatened to name China a currency manipulator and impose heavy tariffs on Chinese imports.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union, China has been the US’s biggest rival. Politically, they have vied for influence over East Asia. China counts North Korea, which regularly threatens the US with nuclear strikes, as a friend. The US is allied to—and has had established military bases in—South Korea and Japan. The US also maintains informal ties with Taiwan, over which Beijing claims sovereignty under its One-China policy. Economically, China and the US compete for trade and investment opportunities in nations in the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. Over the past decade, China has expanded its influence in Africa through aid and business, undermining US interests. However, China is also America’s biggest trading partner and scores of American firms have invested billions of dollars in China-based projects.
It is not unusual for US leaders to talk tough on China while campaigning for presidency and then moderate their stance once in the White House. “Bashing China is an easy way of attacking the incumbent administration. But once in power, Democratic as well as Republican presidents have taken very pragmatic approaches to China,” says John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Washington DC-based Institute for Policy Studies.
At the UN, Xi reminded US diplomats of the Thucydides Trap—a destructive war when an old power becomes wary of a new one.
In the Trump presidency, nothing is business as usual. Trump’s oft-trumpeted ‘America First’ approach has sought to reduce US interference in global affairs, with focus on the domestic economy instead. Soon after his inauguration in January, Trump withdrew the US from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement, leaving the remaining nations open to China’s economic incursion. Trump also did not name China as a currency manipulator. On the other hand, he answered a phone call from the Taiwanese president in December—the first US president-elect or president in nearly four decades to do so. “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One-China policy,” he later told Fox News.
Analysts say Trump may lose ground to China in Asia even if he doesn’t mean to: simply because there aren’t enough boots on the ground—or suits in the corridors—to chart foreign policy. “One of the scandals of this administration is how few senior appointments Trump has made over three months, especially in the state department,” said Richard Cooper, a former US undersecretary of state for economic affairs. “We have a secretary of state but no appointments below that. Those positions have been filled by career diplomats and civil servants—not policymakers. They do their duty, but are not affecting policy. So this administration is largely bereft of foreign policy.”
The problem of understaffing extends to the departments of defence and commerce as well as the national security council, says Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They have very few people in place, especially for Asia policy,” he says. “We see a bit of chaotic policymaking towards some areas like China and South Korea, but there really isn’t any staff to do anything on Asia.”
One reason, according to Kurlantzick, is that there aren’t enough policymakers the Republican president would like to hire. “There are so many Republicans who criticised Trump during his campaign. They are not willing to hire such people now, making it hard to fill up key positions. But there is also a desire to micro-manage things and a desire to shrink the federal bureaucracy, leading to understaffed offices.”
Cooper also points out a lack of concrete, policy-oriented thinking at the very top. “Trump campaigned on slogans and sentiments, sometimes in speeches, sometimes in tweets. His campaign was mostly built around criticising opponents and telling us how great he was. Now he has been president for three months and realising his slogans are not policies. He is realising that policymaking is a great deal more complicated than he thought,” Cooper says.
Under Xi, China has moved past its decades-long preference for a subdued profile in international politics and is angling for an active role. It has launched projects and programmes in recent years that aim to enlarge its global footprint. One of them is the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, which will connect China to much of Europe and Asia through a unified land-and-sea route, enhancing its influence over global economics and politics. Another is the ‘China solution’—the idea that China can help solve any global problem, from poverty to climate change.
The vacuum created by Trump’s lack of foreign policy—and policymakers—may have already emboldened China further. At the World Economic Forum in January, Xi talked about Beijing’s hopes to guide economic globalisation. Speaking at the United Nations the next day, he warned the US against “imposing its will on others”. Perhaps more tellingly, he reminded American diplomats of the Thucydides Trap—the possibility of war and large-scale destruction when an established power becomes wary of a rising power—engulfing Asia.
The Communist Party of China, which runs the country, will elect a new leadership at its quinquennial congress later this year. Kurlantzick, who has authored How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World, said the congress will help Xi consolidate his power. “Since the end of Mao’s time until recently, China was a bureaucratic authoritarian regime where a small group of people collectively made decisions and exerted power. Now, though, it is returning to one-man authoritarianism,” he says. “Xi has amassed much more personal power than any previous Chinese leader. That aggravates the risk to regional security.”
But there may also be a window of opportunity here for the Trump administration to get its act together, Cooper says. At Mar-a-Lago, the two presidents agreed to give each other 100 days to improve their bilateral relationship, especially on issues such as North Korea and the trade deficit. With the congress to follow, Xi and the senior Chinese leadership will preoccupy themselves with domestic politics rather than plan international forays that further unsettle relations with Washington. “They don’t want to do anything to rock the boat,” Cooper says.
Feffer, though, notes that Trump needed to rethink his priorities in East Asia to make any future US presence there worthwhile. “We make enormous investments in terms of troops and surveillance equipment and so on, but it doesn’t translate into concrete benefits,” he says. “But if you think of a country like Vietnam, it was not the military subjugation that proved successful but the economic engagement.”
That would mean more handshakes for Trump—but without the vigorous tugging and pulling.
By Saif Shahin in Ohio