President Trump’s budding bromance with Chinese President Xi Jinping may be a bit weird and possibly one-sided, but it’s definitely not unusual. There’s a long tradition of American political leaders going batty over Beijing.
Ever since his summit with Xi at Mar-a-Lago, Trump has enthused to reporters and Twitter about his new BFF. “We had a great chemistry, not good, but great,” Trump told the New York Post about his meeting with Xi. “I liked him and he liked me a lot. That doesn’t mean we’re going to get along on trade or North Korea, but we had great chemistry.”
To CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Trump observed that the relationship he was forming with China was “already acclaimed as being something very special, something very different than we’ve ever had.” He has promised to tone down his demands on trade and the Pentagon has reportedly directed the U.S. Navy to pause its freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea as sweeteners to get China to be more cooperative on North Korea.
In this public praise, Trump is no different from all of his predecessors in the modern era save one, Barack Obama.
The effusions started with Richard Nixon. Just weeks before he sent his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, on his secret trip to China in July 1971, Nixon waxed poetic about the brains and work ethic of the Chinese. “You can just stop and think of what could happen if anybody with a decent system of government got control of that mainland,” he told a visiting American diplomat. “I mean, you put 800 million Chinese to work under a decent system — and they will be the leaders of the world.” Kissinger was so bowled over by the Chinese that he plied them with top-secret intelligence briefings and outsize promises. He belittled America’s alliance with Japan and implied that the United States was eager to dump Taiwan’s leader, Chiang Kai-shek.
Kissinger went on at length about the brilliance of China’s top diplomat, Zhou Enlai. When Zhou responded, “too early to tell,” to Kissinger’s question about his views on the French Revolution, Kissinger framed Zhou’s answer as a sign of Oriental sagacity where history is viewed in terms of centuries, not decades. Writing to Nixon as the U.S. relationship with China progressed, Kissinger gushed: “We are now in the extraordinary situation that, with the exception of the United Kingdom, the People’s Republic of China might well be closest to us in its global perceptions. … No other world leaders have the sweep and imagination of [Mao Zedong] and [Zhou Enlai] nor the capacity and will to achieve a long range policy.”
A successor of Nixon, President Jimmy Carter, ran for president with a vow, he told his staff, not to “kiss ass” the Chinese like Nixon and Kissinger. But he, too, along with his aides, succumbed to Beijing’s charms. Carter entered office hoping to convince China to agree to let the United States maintain a formal relationship with Taiwan but dropped that idea in the face of Chinese opposition. Carter described Deng Xiaoping’s January 1979 state visit to the United States as “one of the delightful experiences of my presidency.” Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was as equally enamored as his boss. In his memoirs, Brzezinski claimed that he had no “special sentiment for China,” only “larger strategic concerns in mind,” but Carter had him pegged, observing after one of Brzezinski’s trips to Beijing that he “had been seduced.”
President Ronald Reagan ran on a platform of reestablishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan that Carter had abrogated. But he, too, did a 180, describing the Chinese after his sole trip as president to Beijing in 1984 as “so-called Communists.” Following the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests around Tiananmen Square in June 1989, President George H.W. Bush vowed in a letter to Deng to keep the relationship on track, almost as if the United States, not China, was responsible for damaging ties. During a trip to Beijing in December 1989, Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, grasped Deng’s hand and declared, according to journalist Jonathan Mirsky, who witnessed the incident: “My president wants you to know he is your friend forever.”
Bill Clinton in his election campaign promised not to “coddle the butchers of Beijing,” but entering the White House, he, too, became a man transformed. Clinton dropped any connection between human rights and trade, forged what his administration called a “constructive strategic partnership” with Beijing and in 1998 became the first American president to visit China after the 1989 crackdown. President George W. Bush entered office, calling China a “strategic competitor,” but that soon went by the wayside as Bush’s war in the Middle East took precedence. By September 2003, Bush’s secretary of state, Colin Powell, was describing U.S.-China relations as the best since Nixon’s time.
Only Obama was sparing in his praise of China, publicly accusing China of being a “free rider” in a global system built by the United States. Of the Chinese government, Obama told one reporter: “Nobody really expects them to do anything.”
Trump’s wooing of the Chinese president fits neatly in an American tradition that has embraced the idea that it’s important to give the Chinese “face” in order to have a successful relationship. But Trump’s gambit also could reflect something that Americans during recent decades have had a hard time pulling off: using the promise of carrots in one part of the relationship to get results in another. In the past, U.S. administrations handed over the carrots up front. So far, Trump has not made that mistake.
In China, the state-run media has greeted Trump’s courting of the Chinese president with polite silence. But on social media, he has been accused of “slapping the horse’s butt,” Chinese for brown-nosing. As one Chinese journalist told me, “Xi isn’t stupid. He knows what Trump is trying to do.”