Who would have imagined it? Donald Trump and Xi Jinping as best mates? Other Asian governments in the region must be confused, if not alarmed. Where do they fit in this new high-stakes geopolitical landscape?
Ever since they met in Florida last month, it appears that the presidents of the United States and China have forged a strong, personal relationship, which is now extending into intergovernmental policy.
This can, to my mind, surely be positive for two key reasons. First, it perhaps shows that Trump is — finally — appreciating the value and importance of good bilateral foreign relations. And second, it can be reasonably assumed that the world will be a safer and likely more productive place when the world’s two biggest political superpowers and economies are working with each other, rather than against.
The new bond is striking primarily because Trump spent much of his election campaign, and indeed some of his first 100 days in office, criticizing China.
Trump’s initial diplomacy stirs controversy
For instance, he claimed that China damaged the US economy with unfair trade policies and currency manipulation. And perhaps most controversially, he turned long-standing diplomatic protocol on its head when as president-elect he took a phone call from the president of Taiwan — which Beijing claims under its “One China” policy.
In a recent interview with the Reuters news agency, Trump said of Xi: “He is a good man. He is a very good man and I got to know him very well … he loves China and he loves the people of China.” Similarly, he told the Associated Press: “President Xi, we have a … really great relationship.”
This bond is filtering through to political policies. Regarding the currency issue, Trump now says: “For me to call (Xi) a currency manipulator and then say, ‘By the way, I’d like you to solve the North Korean problem,’ doesn’t work.”
Regarding North Korea, Trump earlier said that China had “total control” over the reclusive country and last month tweeted that China has “done little to help” in deterring the regime from developing nuclear weapons. But after meeting with Xi, he now says it is “not so easy” and that China has limited options. “I really feel that he is doing everything in his power to help us with a big situation,” Trump said.
And when it comes to Taiwan, he now recognizes the One China policy — due to his friendship with the Chinese president.
Trump-Xi accord a concern to China’s neighbors
There is a major upside to this new-found presidential love fest, but it is likely to be of concern to other Asian governments who supposedly were hoping to have America’s support in counteracting China’s increasing regional and global influence.
Of note, with China and America’s closer ties, South Korea and Japan could be seen to lose power and control with the US over the North Korea challenge. Japan could also be harboring concerns over a shifting balance of preference to China when it comes to trade.
Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, among other countries, will also be worried about the tighter links between Beijing and Washington due to disputes involving the South China Sea.
The new “special relationship” between the US and China raises more questions than answers. However, we should remember that Trump and his administration are notoriously unpredictable. Trump might have a budding relationship with Xi now, but will it last? A few months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin — who Trump would never criticize publicly — was the Golden Boy. But that relationship has cooled. Will the same scenario play out with Xi Jinping? Only time will tell.