US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Thomas Peter
US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2017. Photo: Reuters / Thomas Peter

The extraordinary praise Donald Trump publicly lavished on China and Xi Jinping, calling the Chinese leader “a very special man” and lauding their “great chemistry” during his so-called “state visit-plus” to the Asian power last month, astonished many.

While his fawning over the Communist-ruled nation and its authoritarian leader, unheard of for a visiting US president, puzzled American and international observers, it delighted Trump’s hosts.

But with the release this week of his administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS), China’s joy at – or perhaps, its perception of – Trump’s accommodating posture turned out to be short-lived.

After the November visit, the official China Daily praised “personal rapport” between the two leaders, editorializing that it “can guide ties in new era” and that their “talks will strengthen ties.” The Global Times, another state-run publication, was equally impressed by Trump’s “pragmatic” approach to Beijing and his respect for China’s leader, asserting that his visit positively contributed to bilateral ties and his meeting with Xi extended cooperative spirit.

For a researcher at the Foreign Ministry’s China Institute of International Studies, Trump adopted such a posture because the US “has realized that no country can contain China’s development.” In her view, not only the US but also “the rest of the world has to accommodate China’s rising power and international influence, and choose cooperation over conflict.”

But in launching the NSS on Monday, America’s 45th president revealed what his administration portrays as an existential competition with the world’s second-biggest economy.

Indeed, the launch speech and especially the 68-page document embraced the tough rhetoric against China that Trump used last year during his presidential campaign. The difference is that such a harsh posture is no longer mere rhetoric. It’s now a national strategy, which is required by law and offers a blueprint for US military, foreign and economic policy in the years to come.

In his remarks, Trump explicitly named China – along with Russia – as rival powers “that seek to challenge American influence, values, and wealth.”

The strategy paper itself is more explicit, claiming that these two countries attempt “to erode American security and prosperity.” More precisely, it observes, “They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.”

That’s why Trump emphasized that the NSS “calls for firm action against unfair trade practices and intellectual-property theft.” The document also makes clear that the US “will pursue enforcement actions when countries violate the rules to gain unfair advantage” and “engage industrialized democracies and other likeminded states to defend against economic aggression in all its forms.”

While they didn’t openly name China in this context, such economic charges in both Trump’s speech and his strategy paper were primarily aimed at Beijing, which Trump previously accused of “raping America” with its unfair trade practices.

Trump’s strident stance has obviously angered China. As always, the Global Times reacted quickly and furiously. After an advance report that Trump’s security strategy would label China as pursuing “economic aggression,” the offspring of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party of China’s official mouthpiece, on Monday described the US move as “hegemonic.”

As the US needed Chinese cooperation on several pressing issues and Trump thought he could get such cooperation by playing nice with Beijing, he decided to trade barbs for flattery before and during his China trip. But apparently his gambit didn’t pay off

In its editorial on Tuesday, the Global Times noted that in the White House’s newly released strategy “the word ‘China’ occurs 33 times, mostly couched in harsh rhetoric.” The paper went on to denounce the NSS, regarding it as “blinded by arrogance [and] false beliefs.”

An op-ed in the People’s Daily on the same day also criticized the strategy, arguing that it “signals a return to the dark side of history, when zero-sum games defined world affairs.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying went further, asking the US “to give up” what she called a “cold-war mentality.”

The question remains as to why Trump abruptly and radically shifted from the accommodating posture adopted during his Beijing trip back to the anti-China rhetoric frequently aired on his campaign trail.

There is no doubt that Trump and many of his senior aides view China negatively and want to get tough on Beijing. Yet, as the US needed Chinese cooperation on several pressing issues and he thought he could get such cooperation by playing nice with Beijing, he decided to trade barbs for flattery before and during his China trip.

But apparently his gambit didn’t pay off. Two core issues that linger unresolved are America’s huge bilateral trade imbalance with China and North Korea’s nuclear programs.

Besides business contracts and investment agreements worth about US$250 billion inked during his visit, which were still regarded by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as “pretty small,” Trump’s China trip didn’t result in major breakthroughs that could help bridge the trade deficit of between $300 billion and $500 billion the US is suffering.

Not long after his Asia tour, which was heavily dominated by the North Korea issue, Pyongyang claimed to have successfully tested a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile, topped with a “super-large heavy warhead,” that was capable of striking the US mainland.

This means his talks with Beijing, Pyongyang’s main economic partner and traditional protector, didn’t have any impact on North Korea’s behavior.

Thus, while there may be other factors, including his erratic behavior, Trump’s failure to get Chinese cooperation or concession on these two prominent issues probably led him to take a hawkish posture on China in his first NSS.

In any case, Trump’s new security strategy certainly marks the end of his brief bonhomie with China.

Before his expanded bilateral meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing last month, Trump said he looked “forward to many years’ success and friendship,” declaring that with their newfound friendship, he and the Chinese leader could work “together to solve not only our problems, but world problems.”

Such an upbeat and euphoric declaration now seems ancient history. In the years to come, instead of cooperating with each other, it’s likely that the world’s two superpowers will compete with and confront each other on a host of key bilateral and international issues.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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