The two-day trip was orchestrated to project the image of remote and absolute power that [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] enjoys and [President] Trump admires. There were no protests, no questions from the press, no ordinary people — nothing but pleasantries and soothing tones.
Trump brought up North Korea but said Xi could solve it. He raised the trade deficit but said it was not China’s fault. He said the Chinese people are very proud of Xi.
After all the sweet talk, the United States is expecting a lot in return from Beijing — but Xi, in the ascendant, may not budge. That could lead to disappointment in the United States and friction down the road in the relationship.
This is hardly surprising, but it is terribly ironic. It was being “weak on China” that fueled much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Our people made “stupid deals” or “bad deals.” He was going to make the best deals.
But then China’s regime got a good look at Trump. Trump took to fawning and kowtowing. The Post reports:
“Talk about embracing the Leninist political system,” said Evan S. Medeiros, who heads the Eurasia Group’s coverage of the Asia-Pacific region and was the National Security Council’s Asia director in the Obama administration. “In Trump’s effort to ingratiate himself with Xi, is he inadvertently ceding American primacy to China?”
The United States, Medeiros argued, is the anchor power in Asia because of the rules, institutions and values it represents. “Trump fundamentally calls that into question when he’s praising the Chinese political system — and not getting much in exchange.”
Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute tells me, “It’s one thing not to be a jerk on a state visit but it’s a totally different thing to fawn over a despot whose ambitions, the China Dream, are in direct conflict with the interests of the United States.” He adds, “Trump’s instinct to ignore the difference between friends and competitors, allies and adversaries, democrats and thugs doesn’t make America great, but increasingly small.”
The problem of diminishing U.S. prestige and influence is magnified if our allies successfully conclude a Trans-Pacific Partnership — without the United States. That would be both a huge embarrassment and a missed opportunity for the United States, where protectionist rhetoric on both sides of the aisle has become more heated and divorced from reality. Opening of markets and gaining additional protection for our intellectual property would be a boon to growth and wages on both sides of the Pacific. Trump could well be left out in the cold — the ultimate non-dealmaker.
Then there is the issue of human rights. Or rather, the lack of human rights discussion and Trump’s fawning over China’s totalitarian system. “There is a very big contrast between the tone and the demeanor that Trump struck in South Korea and in Japan compared to China,” observed Rajan Menon of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. “He clearly does not want to do anything at all to embarrass Mr. Xi. He did not meet with dissidents. He didn’t bring up the issue of human rights. He soft-pedaled, as you noted, as you noted earlier, the trade deficit. And so, I would say, from the Chinese standpoint, this summit has gone very well for them. Less so, I think, for Mr. Trump.” And even less well for China’s dissidents.
The lack of concern about human rights has deep implications for the United States and our Asian allies. Viola Rothschild of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote last month:
Maintaining a stable economy and avoiding nuclear war are important. But so are human rights. Despite what Chinese officials might tell us, domestic situations have global consequences. As the U.S.-led world order continues to deteriorate under the apathy of the Trump administration, China can and will seek to play a more prominent role on the global stage. If China insists on behaving like a bully at home, and cannot guarantee its own citizens basic rights and freedoms, how can we expect it to behave any differently as a world power?
You may recall when just a year or two ago Republican lawmakers were livid over the Obama administration’s laxity on human rights and failure to stand up for U.S. interests in the region. I suppose it’s not U.S. power and human rights they care about so much as partisan politics. Good to know.