PRESIDENT TRUMP GIVES IN TO EMPEROR XI JINPING
This was the headline for me after hearing what the two leaders had to say during the US-China summit in Beijing and the Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) in Da Nang, Vietnam that followed.
We are witnessing a fierce ongoing struggle today between Washington and Beijing for leadership as the world’s rule maker. In the Cold War, the US defeated the Soviet Union. But this current confrontation between the US and China is far more complicated than the ideological battle fought between Washington and Moscow.
No matter how objectionable its practices may be, China today plays a large role in a world with intricately interwoven economic relationships that cannot readily be untangled. Against such a backdrop, which of the two world powers—the US or China—will ultimately claim hegemony has serious implications for the entire international community. In its confrontation with China, the fate of the US as the world’s prime superpower is at stake.
The Chinese side appears to understand the significance of the current struggle better than the US. I wonder if the US side, including Trump and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, one of his closest advisors, have fully come to grips with this matter. The US appears to be lacking a grand diplomatic strategy. What dictates Washington’s policies, I am afraid, appears to be a mere series of tactical maneuvers based on immediate gains with no long-range goals.
The Chinese have been vigorously propagating what they describe as “the 5,000 years of Chinese history.” This new version of China’s history is a fabrication concocted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Xi in an effort to enhance the party’s authority.
In order to make its history unsurpassed in scale by other nations, China’s history must go back 5,000 years. Trump must have been immensely impressed by the lectures given on Chinese history, which is at least 20 times longer than America’s, and the chance to admire traditional buildings and historic relics, each grandiose and magnificent in its own way.
China gave the Trumps a “state visit-plus” welcome to lavishly entertain and enchant them, shutting down the Forbidden City—a massive palace complex that was for centuries the residence of the imperial family—for their visit. Xi and his wife Peng Liyuang personally showed them around.
American firms signed 37 major deals amounting to US$250 billion during Trump’s visit, which must have won the heart and mind of the former real estate mogul who loves making deals, and claims to be a master at it.
The sum is indeed staggering, but close analysis by experts has since begun to show the truth behind the deals, such as: 1) the number does not represent a genuine grand total, as it includes the investments China has already promised to make in the US under the Xi administration; 2) many of the “contracts” are actually non-binding memorandums of understanding that could take years to materialize; and 3) it would be too optimistic to automatically expect the Chinese side to honor these “contracts.”
The full scope of the deals is expected to be made public sometime soon. However, Trump in Beijing clearly appeared dazzled by the enormous sum. The joint news conference on the second day of Trump’s visit showed a sharp difference in the two leaders’ posture towards each other, with Trump plainly overwhelmed by the elaborate welcome arranged by Xi.
Earlier in the summit, Xi discussed the economic benefits to all nations concerned of his “One Belt, One Road” initiative as well as the great impact it will have on the future of the world. Xi noted that the Pacific Ocean is “big enough to accommodate both China and the US.” Needless to say, he was repeating China’s grand strategy towards the US based on a new “big-nation” relationship and a plan to “divide and rule” the Pacific between them.
China clearly longs to establish a system that will allow it to rule the world along with the US. Xi told the opening session of the CCP Congress on October 18 that his ultimate goal is to create a China that will tower over the rest of the world.
Xi told the press the US and China reaffirmed that “neither wants to become a safe haven for each other’s fugitives…” This is an ominous agreement for Chinese who are demanding a democratization of the communist system at home or are forced to seek asylum in the US because of their activities. The alleged agreement makes one question if America may have decided to close its doors to asylum seekers, relinquishing its traditional position as a fortress of freedom of thought.
In stark contrast to Xi, who based his remarks on a grand strategy and appeared pleased to have secured what he had sought, Trump sounded almost entirely preoccupied throughout his address with showering compliments on Xi.
Although he referred to North Korea, narcotics traffic, international trade, and intellectual property rights, Trump gave one the impression of being so thrilled with the $250 billion in deals that he decided to not go into the specifics of the topics, only settling for perfunctory remarks. Especially notable were the overly flowery compliments he offered his host at the beginning and end of his remarks. For instance:
“Your people are proud of who they are and what they have built together, and your people are also very proud of you.”
The compliments Trump repeated made one think that he might have indeed been infatuated with China and his host.
Trump’s remarks, made during the APEC meeting in Da Nang which followed his visit to Beijing, were in fact so off the mark that one almost could not stand to listen to them. What we had expected of Trump was a pledge that the US would exercise deterrence against a China which has violated international law in occupying and militarizing islands in the South China Sea, imposed divide-and-rule policies on ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members, and refused to cope squarely with their legitimate claims.
In line with these expectations, Trump should have stated America’s readiness to: 1) safeguard international law; 2) maintain a stable international order; and 3) protect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, with a commitment to resort to force if necessary.
Prior to Trump’s five-nation Asian visit, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discussed how peace can be achieved in the Indo-Pacific, asserting that America must protect this expansive region together with Japan, India, and Australia.
Trump’s Appalling Lack of Sense of Crisis and Strategic Thinking
The Indo-Pacific initiative was initially proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo in 2016 at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development. The US State Department has since incorporated it into its own policy. Trump referred to it during his Asian visit, albeit briefly.
Diplomatic or strategic policies advocated by Japanese prime ministers have seldom been heeded by the US in the past. If Trump is seriously considering pursuing the Indo-Pacific initiative, the US and its allies, including Japan, ought to be able to work out a grand strategy for regional stability far mightier than China’s “One Belt, One Road” or Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB) initiatives.
But Trump’s remarks were a sheer disappointment throughout his visit. He repeatedly stressed that America cannot stand unfair or unreasonable trade deficits any longer, routinely emphasizing the need for America to make gains. Mention of the Indo-Pacific initiative cropped up in his talks, but he failed to provide the specifics of a viable policy.
Above all, Trump completely failed to make any mention of the continuing crisis in the South China Sea, laying bare an almost complete absence of any real strategic thinking on his part or a sense of the crisis in Asia.
Contrary to Trump, who obviously is becoming increasingly more inward-looking, Xi emphasized the importance of China opening up to the world and promoting international cooperation. On the basis of what the two leaders said this past week, one is inclined to view Xi as better qualified to be a world leader.
Nothing can be more ironic than that. We should never allow ourselves to be drawn into China’s world of smoke and mirrors, one in which words are cheap and never correspond with actions.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 779 in the November 23, 2017 issue of The Weekly Shincho)