Full disclosure: the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts did not want to talk about President Trump’s foreign policy musings today. Nope. My book “The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas” was officially released on Monday, so I was thinking maybe I’d try to convince you to buy it by clicking on this link or something.
But no, after reading about the preparations for Trump’s scheduled summit with Chinese premier Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago later this week, I have to write about this. I blame man-in-charge-of-Mexico-and-Canada-and-the-Middle-East-and-China-and-government-reform-and-criminal-justice-reform Jared Kushner.
Three stories dropped over the weekend about Kushner’s role in planning this summit. The Financial Times’ Edward Luce was first:
Though he has almost no China background, Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law, is leading the US preparation for next week’s meeting. His counterpart is Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador in Washington. That, alone, gives China an edge. Mr Cui is a professional diplomat who knows America well — he did his postgraduate studies in the US capital and worked as an interpreter at the UN.
Mr Kushner’s chief qualification is that he is married to the president’s daughter. Mr Cui has just one job — US-China relations. Among other things, Mr Kushner is the White House point person for Middle East peace, criminal justice reform and US business innovation.
China seems to have grasped that the best way to influence Mr Trump is via his family. Chinese diplomats have gone out of their way to court Mr Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who were their guests of honour at the Chinese new year celebration in February. China has also looked favourably on Mr Trump’s business.
The New York Times’ Mark Landler offers up some additional details that help to explain why China is working through Kushner rather than, say, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson:
Mr. Kushner’s central role reflects not only the peculiar nature of this first meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi, but also of the broader relationship between the United States and China in the early days of the Trump administration. It is at once highly personal and bluntly transactional — a strategy that carries significant risks, experts said, given the economic and security issues that already divide the countries.
While Chinese officials have found Mr. Trump a bewildering figure with a penchant for inflammatory statements, they have come to at least one clear judgment: In Mr. Trump’s Washington, his son-in-law is the man to know. …
China’s courtship of Mr. Kushner, which has coincided with the marginalization of the State Department in the Trump administration, reflects a Chinese comfort with dynastic links. Mr. Xi is himself a “princeling”: His father was Xi Zhongxun, a major figure in the Communist revolution who was later purged by Mao Zedong.
It’s so great that the American political system resembles China’s political system enough for the Trump administration for have its very own princeling.
So, what will Trump want from this summit? He has seemed to suggest that he’s going to be tough with Xi. This past Thursday, Trump tweeted out, “The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses. American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives.” There’s also this from his interview with the Financial Times:
You know when you talk about, when you talk about currency manipulation, when you talk about devaluations, they are world champions. And our country hasn’t had a clue, they haven’t had a clue. The past administration hasn’t had and many administrations — I don’t want to say only Obama; this has gone on for many years — They haven’t had a clue. But I do.
How can one square Trump’s harsh rhetoric with Kushner’s efforts to be the point man? My colleague Josh Rogin has a possible answer. It involves Henry Kissinger:
The Kushner channel was established shortly after the election with the help of former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. In a series of meetings with top Chinese officials, Kushner and other Trump aides set the tone and broad agenda for the coming summit, well before the current policy process began. When Trump meets with Xi at Mar-a-Lago, the leaders could codify those early discussions, with huge implications for the United States, China and the Asia-Pacific region. …
In the meetings, [a Chines official] laid out a list of Chinese requests. China wants the Trump administration to adopt its concept of “a new model of great power relations,” Xi’s proposal to avoid conflict and focus on cooperation. China also wants Trump to endorse Xi’s signature “One Belt, One Road” initiative, China’s massive regional infrastructure and development project. China also seeks U.S. noninterference in issues it considers core interests, including Taiwan, Tibet and its internal affairs.
In exchange, the Chinese are prepared to offer as-yet-unspecified investment proposals to help advance Trump’s domestic agenda of creating jobs. Kushner and Cui have kept in close communication and the Chinese leadership has come to rely on the Kushner channel, which was used to help arrange the coming summit.
If you’ll all excuse me for one second:
First of all, suddenly Tillerson’s odd decision to parrot Xi’s language on great power relationships makes sense. If this is what the Chinese want from the Trump administration, the White House appears eager to oblige. This is likely because Trump does not place a high value on words. U.S. allies in the region will be paying close attention, however.
Second of all, can someone please explain to Trump and Kushner that one of the ways that China can devalue its currency is by buying up American assets? A world where the U.S. simultaneously increases exports to China and foreign direct investment from China is next to impossible.
Third, and finally, a nascent grand strategy is becoming visible for the Trump administration, and it’s a rather disturbing one. The grand strategy is that the administration demonstrates a willingness to rent out its foreign policy to any interested investor. So long as Trump can proclaim some glossy, high-profile investments, he is willing to trade off U.S. interests in the Pacific Rim or Europe or wherever. Which means that countries such as China can have their way with Trump so long as they meet the minimum price, which is a few promised billions.
This is a dangerous and stupid game to play. Current shifts in foreign policy can have long-lasting effects; announcements of investments can be followed by non-implementation. It also guarantees that all of America’s allies in the Pacific Rim will gravitate closer to China than the United States.
I don’t mean to suggest that a new Cold War with China is a better outcome. It isn’t. I don’t want Peter Navarro running China policy either. I’m all for endorsing One Belt, One Road as a stabilizing move for Asia. But it is hard not to conclude that Trump and Kushner are spectacularly out of their depth on these issues. Worse, Trump displays no metacognition whatsoever: He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and probably never will. He and Kushner will therefore sell off core national interests and investments at cut-rate prices.
That’s usually what happens when neophytes bargain with experts.