US President Donald Trump touched down in Beijing on Wednesday – the anniversary of his 2016 election victory – for a much-ballyhooed “state visit plus” that will be the centerpiece of his 12-day trip to Asia.
China rolled out the red carpet for the embattled US leader, who has become bogged down by several inquiries and controversies back home.
Besides the usual pomp and circumstance, Beijing’s hospitality was scheduled to extend to a tea gathering and family dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping inside the Forbidden City’s sumptuous Palace of Established Happiness on Wednesday evening.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman told reporters that Beijing looked to reciprocate the gracious hospitality that was afforded Xi during his visit to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s resort in Palm Beach, Florida, in April, and to celebrate the two leaders’ amicable rapport in dealing with matters of common concern.
“It’s like you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” a commentator noted in a news program on the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.
Beijing’s conviviality and fanfare are sure to satisfy Trump’s taste for extravagance, but beneath the pleasantries analysts are keen to see how he will broach issues including trade and an unruly North Korea.
A slew of recent developments – from Washington’s renewed vows to defend Japan and South Korea to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s recent high-profile stopovers in Hawaii and Guam – suggest that the Trump administration, whilst continuing to mouth the slogan “America first,” has been mindful of reassuring treaty allies in Asia.
US media have also been talking up the importance of “free and open Indo-Pacific” in the run-up to Trump’s Asian tour, a theme that the US president may well articulate further as it proceeds.
Citing a speech by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in which he voiced skepticism about China’s trustworthiness, Michael Green – who is Japan Chair and senior vice-president for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank – said in a recent column that Trump is likely to focus his efforts on cultivating relations with Japan, Australia and India as part of a new strategy to contain China.
The prospect of Washington mobilizing Asian heavyweights from east and southeast Asia all the way to the Indian Ocean will not be welcomed by Beijing in light of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
Pyongyang joining hands with Washington?
Tillerson hinted earlier this year that Washington has several channels to communicate with Pyongyang, an admission that has led to speculation that the sworn adversaries have been engaged in secret talks for some time despite open hostilities.
Since mid-September, Kim Jong-un’s regime has been somewhat more self-restrained in its rogue behaviour.
This has been against a backdrop of strained camaraderie between Communist bedfellows North Korea and China, with Beijing voicing condemnation of Pyongyang’s missile tests and nuclear ambitions. China’s endorsement of new United Nations sanctions on North Korea, in addition to its own curbs against the country, have damaged relations.
Commentator Lam Hang-chi, founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal, notes in a column that Washington may be able to exploit this estrangement in a bid to turn Pyongyang into a new pawn in its containment of China. Lam says that sources indicate Kim, like his father Kim Jong-il before him, is becoming antsy at the prospect of Beijing abandoning him and attempting to install a puppet leader.
All Washington would have to do is pledge that it won’t seek a “dynasty change” – a position that it has in fact already gestured towards – and a shrewd Kim might be happy to do his bit for Uncle Sam’s efforts to stop China making all of Asia its backyard.