Though the U.S.-China relationship has been rocky over the past 18 months, many in China’s halls of power hope that the American leader will win a second term next year. For although he may seem unpredictable, Chinese officials are betting that Trump’s transactional approach to politics might be preferable to a more principle-driven president, whether Democrat or Republican.
“Trump is a businessman. We can just pay him money and the problems will be solved,” said a politically connected person in Beijing, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about sensitive international issues. “As long as we have money, we can buy him. That’s the reason why we prefer him to Democrats.”
Trump’s unfiltered tweets help China in negotiations because he is “easy to read,” said Long Yongtu, a former vice minister of foreign trade and China’s point man during its accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, at a conference in Shenzhen this month. “We want Trump to be reelected; we would be glad to see that happen.”
Another influential voice in Beijing, Tsinghua University international relations professor Yan Xuetong, wrote recently that, thanks to Trump, China was facing “the best strategic opportunity” since the Cold War.
“Trump has undermined the U.S.-led alliance system, which has improved China's international environment,” Yan said in Southern Review.
Governments around the world, from allies such as Australia and South Korea to adversaries like Iran and North Korea, have had to adjust to Trump’s idiosyncratic style.
But the Chinese were among the most shocked by the U.S. leader’s approach. When Trump took office, Communist Party officials thought that he was only interested in a quick, tweetable victory, analysts have said. But the party underestimated Trump’s resolve to both rebalance the trading relationship and make Beijing a public enemy among U.S. voters. Chinese leaders also acknowledge underestimating the extent to which China’s behavior has become a bipartisan concern in Washington, according to people who have met with senior officials.
Almost two years into the trade war and three years into his administration, Chinese officials have learned the art of Trump’s dealmaking.
“Trump isn’t ideologically opposed to China. He doesn’t go on about human rights and Xinjiang and the South China Sea,” the Beijing insider said, referring to China’s contested maritime claims and to its northwestern region where authorities have detained a million Muslims.
A Democratic president would almost certainly take a more wide-ranging approach to China. The candidates struck a strident tone in the debate last week, with several vowing to increase pressure on China over its human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong.
Trump does not seem concerned about those issues, said Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the free and open Indo-Pacific, all of these are issues that President Trump does not typically address,” Economy said. “If I’m correct in my assumption that he doesn’t care about these issues, because he never talks about them, then he will be more willing to just trade them out in discussions with the Chinese.”
As if to prove that point, Trump declared Friday that he would be willing to veto legislation designed to support pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong — despite its near-unanimous support in the House and Senate — to pave the way for a trade deal with China.
None of this means that China will make the next year easy for Trump.
There has been no tangible progress on the “phase one” trade deal that the American leader had hoped to sign this month.
In October, Trump said the two sides were on the brink of “a very substantial” agreement under which China would double its annual purchases of U.S. farm goods to more than $40 billion. But he said last week that China was not “stepping up to the level that I want.”
Many analysts expect a “phase one” deal to be reached, not least because many of the provisions are in China’s interest. A virus has decimated the pig population in China, the world’s largest consumer of pork, spurring officials to look abroad and to other meats to satisfy demand. And the “phase one” deal looks a lot like the deal on the table in April — minus the parts that irritated Beijing.
Still, China’s leaders have no incentive to proceed quickly, said Paul Haenle, an Asia adviser in the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama who is now at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “Why would we give the U.S. a comprehensive deal going into an election year?” Haenle said, posing the question Beijing officials are asking themselves. “If we give you a lot now and in 2020, then what will we have to give Trump in his second term?”
The trade dispute will become more difficult for Beijing if and when talks proceed to phases two and three. That’s when negotiators would have to discuss structural issues that have long bothered the United States, such as China’s practice of forcing foreign investors to hand over their technology, intellectual property theft, and subsidies for state-owned companies.
“So there’s a bit of a risk at this point, especially as we head into the 2020 election year, that the Trump administration will kind of settle for a superficial deal to claim a win,” said Alison Szalwinski, vice president of research at the National Bureau of Asian Research. “And that could take the wind out of the sails of talking about longer-term issues in the bilateral relationship.”
That should especially concern Congress, where there are some 25 different bills and resolutions related to China.
Congress and some parts of government, like the Defense and State departments, have had a relatively free hand to criticize China on issues such as Xinjiang and expansionism in the South China Sea, as long as they don’t conflict with Trump’s priorities, said Economy. “But if the trade negotiations progress and the president at some point decides to declare victory, the window for these types of actions will close,” she said.
For while Trump is thinking about four more years, Xi is thinking about many more than that. The 66-year-old has abolished term limits, effectively enabling him to continue leading China for the rest of his life.
That means Xi can agree to a “phase one” deal to play for time without having to offer more.
“If he retreats for eight, nine months to a year, it’s not a big deal for him, because I think he sees himself as the leader of China for the next 10 or 20 years, if not longer,” said Victor Shih, a China expert at the University of California at San Diego. “So he’s definitely playing a much longer game than the president of the United States right now.”