It’s totally premature to have a summit with China early next month. The Trump administration clearly has no China policy and so meeting with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, at this juncture makes no sense. In fact, it could do more harm than good to America’s relations with China.
Let’s review the bumpy road of President Trump’s China “policy” so far. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to slap a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods and, on Day One, declare China a currency manipulator. Before Trump took office, he took a phone call from Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen, breaking with decades of precedent. He threw U.S. relations with China into potential turmoil by questioning the “One China” policy, which has been a foundation of the relationship for more than 40 years.
Then, once in the White House, Trump pivoted. The tariff threat evaporated as did the promise to declare China a currency manipulator, deep-sixed by Trump’s secretary of the treasury, Steven Mnuchin. Instead, on Day One, Trump did more to bolster China’s influence in Asia than any previous American president had in years: he withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade grouping of America’s friends and allies in Asia. No matter what you think about the TPP’s potential affect on America’s workers, the pact’s collapse cedes to China the right to make the trading rules in Asia for years to come.
Then, in a phone call with President Xi, Trump accepted the “One China” policy that he had questioned a few weeks earlier. He dispatched his secretary of defense, James Mattis, to Asia to assure America’s allies, Japan and South Korea, that Trump would not throw them under a bus. Mattis also reassured China that the United States had no plans for precipitous military action against China’s island-building in the South China Sea, walking back a threat that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had made during his confirmation hearing.
Then came Tillerson’s March in-like-a-lion-out-like-a-lamb trip to Asia. Tillerson began the trip in Japan where he threatened a preemptive military strike on North Korea and, during a quick stop in South Korea, declared the U.S. policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea over. Tillerson flew to Beijing where he doubled down on the very same policy he had just declared dead. Central to that policy was a reliance on China to convince North Korea to end its nuclear program. And in Beijing, Tillerson did just that. What’s more, while in Beijing, Tillerson announced that America was seeking a relationship with China built on “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” If that sounds wooden it’s because it’s a formulation invented by the Chinese. How China got Tillerson to parrot its goals for its relationship with the United States is anybody’s guess, but it underscores that while China might know what it wants from America – U.S. respect for a growing list of Chinese “core interests,” the Trump administration has no idea what it wants from China.
During his trip Tillerson gave an interview to the sole reporter invited to accompany him. For me the operative quote again cuts to the heart of this confused reality. In making the case for an early meeting between Trump and Xi, Tillerson said the two needed to get together “to frame this overall relationship and frame the dialogue itself.” He said the two leaders needed time to be together so that “we have a clear understanding of their priorities and they have a clear understanding of ours.”
Don’t we need to know what our priorities are first? Nothing in the zigzagging of the past few weeks gives any indication that the Trump administration actually has those priorities, much less a strategic framework within which to accomplish its goals.
In his interview, for example, Tillerson insisted that the United States cares about human rights. “It’s embedded in everything we do,” he said. And yet, last week, Canada led a coalition of 11 Western nations that criticized Chinese authorities for allegedly torturing a group of Chinese lawyers who have been incarcerated because they defended downtrodden Chinese. I’m told the United States was asked to sign the letter but the State Department declined.
Nor do we know exactly who is in charge of U.S. relations with China. Is it Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who seems to be the go-to guy for China’s ambassador Cui Tiankai? Or is it Tillerson, who returned from China and apparently requested that the White House make him the point person on China? If so, it would make it the first time since Secretary of State George Shultz wrested control of the relationship from the Reagan White House that the State Department has taken the lead with Beijing.
America does well when it knows what it wants from China. The Trump administration is not there yet. And it’s walking into a summit with China’s president, who knows what he wants. If that doesn’t violate “the art of the deal,” I don’t know what does.