The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Xi showed his hand, now it’s time for Trump to play his cards in Asia

Pedestrians, one wearing a mask, walk by a poster of Chinese President Xi Jinping on a street in Beijing. (Andy Wong/AP)

In China, the foreign policy mantra had long been to hide your strength, and bide your time. Cards, in other words, would be played close to the vest, and bets would be modest.

No longer. At the 19th Communist Party Congress, President Xi Jinping declared that a "new era" had begun. It was time for China to show its hand, to put its cards on the table.

“It will be an era that sees China moving closer to center stage,” he said, describing a confident nation “blazing a trail” for other developing countries to follow, a nation that “now stands tall and firm in the East.”

Xi set out a vision of a political system directly opposed to Western values of democracy and free speech, values that Chinese Communist Party media mockingly declared had brought only chaos, confusion and decline to the West.

But is it a winning hand? Is China about to replace the United States as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region?

In early November, President Trump will embark on his first presidential visit to Asia. The Post's Ishaan Tharoor previews the ambitious trip. (Video: Joyce Lee, Ishaan Tharoor/The Washington Post)

For an answer, Asia is looking to President Trump, who will arrive in Asia on Friday for his first visit, a 10-day trip that will take him from South Korea and Japan to China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

“This must be a wake-up for the Trump administration and officials in Washington,” said Paul Haenle, director of the ­Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing and a former China director on the National Security Council for Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. “On his visit to Asia, Trump should push back forcefully against the narrative that U.S. leadership on the global stage and in Asia is receding.”

It is a narrative fueled by one of Trump’s first acts on taking office, his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious 12-nation trade deal that excluded China and was the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s economic strategy toward the region. Western diplomats in Beijing shake their heads ruefully when that decision comes up in conversation.

Trump may have backed away from campaign suggestions that the United States’ Asian allies should pay more for their own defense, or even that they should develop their own nuclear deterrents. But he continues to threaten South Korea, a key strategic ally, with the renegotiation of its free-trade deal with the United States.

Last week, as Chinese media covering the party congress celebrated the triumph of the socialist system over Western democracy, Trump didn’t even appear to realize there was a contest.

He congratulated Xi for his “extraordinary elevation,” and told Fox Business Network that the Chinese president — who presides over one of the most repressive regimes on the planet — is “a very good person.”

“People say we have the best relationship of any president-president, because he’s called president also. Some people might call him the king of China, but he’s called president,” Trump said.

Fudan University’s Wu Xinbo, a foreign policy expert, says he welcomes a president refreshingly free of “ ideological bias,” with a more transactional style.

The White House says Trump will be coming to Beijing to seek more help in exerting pressure on North Korea, and to “rebalance” the U.S.-China economic relationship.

But European diplomats said there is little or no policy coordination between Washington and Western Europe in setting trade and market-access policy toward China, and little confidence that Washington has a coherent strategy.

Trump’s April meeting with Xi at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida is not seen as having made significant progress, and the risk is that the Chinese will flatter Trump’s ego with the pomp and ceremony of a high-profile state visit — and so deflect his demands, diplomats here say.

The more fundamental question, though, is whether Trump can repair some of the damage he has wrought to American reputation in the region, diplomats and experts say, and counter talk of U.S. decline, set against China’s rise.

Western diplomats in Beijing say their counterparts from Africa, Latin America and even poorer parts of Europe are increasingly fascinated with China’s political and economic system.

"That's especially true in countries with authoritarian tendencies, who can say it's helpful, the economy will flourish," one diplomat said. "The further away they are geographically from China, the more fascinated they are."

Closer to home, in the Asia-Pacific region, however, many countries still look to the United States to keep the peace, and keep China in check.

Beijing’s growing influence has generated significant pushback in Australia, while its territorial ambitions have generated even more intense ill will in Vietnam and India.

Attempts to wield Chinese influence globally still generate more pushback than American attempts, said Andrew Nathan, a political science professor and China expert at Columbia University in New York.

“I’m not entirely sure why that is — I mean, the U.S. has done a lot of bad things, but the U.S. seems more trusted and accepted,” he said. “Chinese money may be accepted, and Chinese influence yielded to when necessary, but I don’t find Chinese ‘leadership’ being much welcomed either by its near neighbors or in Africa and Europe.”

Trump's long Asia trip is likely to help reassure nervous allies, experts say, although his decision to skip the East Asia Summit in the Philippines has raised concerns.

A speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Vietnam will be a key point of engagement, said Rana Mitter, a professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University.

That speech, he said, will be closely scrutinized to see if Trump presents a clear and coherent statement of the United States’ commitment to the region, or a more confused and uncertain assessment.

In the end, Mitter said, it is up to Washington to decide how much influence it still wants to wield, or whether it lets that power slip away toward Beijing.

“If you look objectively, the level of American power, influence and alliances in East Asia still massively outplays China,” he said. “The Americans still have a lot of the cards in their hands. It’s up to them if they play these cards or keep them off the table.”

Luna Lin contributed to this report.

Read more:

The rise of China’s Xi Jinping told in six front pages

Move over, America. China presents itself as the model ‘blazing a new trail’ for the world.

Trump to skip key Asia summit in Philippines to go home earlier

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news