U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping sharing a laugh Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter
U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping sharing a laugh Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2013 summit with then-president Barack Obama in Sunnylands, California, Xi defined a “New Type of Great Power Relations” (NTGPR). The term was met first with reluctance by leaders in Washington, before it was effectively rejected.

The new framework asserted China’s increased influence in Asia and on the global stage. Washington was clearly not ready.

Xi’s description of NTGPR (as recounted by Brookings): 1)no conflict or confrontation, through emphasizing dialogue and treating each other’s strategic intentions objectively; 2) mutual respect, including for each other’s core interests and major concerns; and 3) mutually beneficial cooperation, by abandoning the zero-sum game mentality and advancing areas of mutual interest.

The Obama administration’s reluctance to embrace the new model became a thorn in the side of Beijing. Though the somewhat awkward phrasing has been dropped by the Xi administration and Chinese state-run media, the tenets have become key foreign policy talking points.

Hillary Clinton’s expected presidency was portrayed by many in China as certain to extend Obama-era China policy, offering little hope of respecting China’s “core interests” (read: domestic political system, South China Sea, Taiwan).

Enter Donald Trump. The unlikely president’s election that shocked and horrified America’s liberal elite was met with a renewed, if cautious, sense of optimism in Beijing. Despite Trump’s endless bluster that he would take China to task for “raping” America, Chinese media hailed a new era in US-China ties that would bring the bilateral relationship to heights never seen before.

Some argue this was a result of Trump’s inexperience, even incompetence, and lack of a comprehensive strategy to confront China.

There were also signals that the new president was ready to adopt a practical approach to US-China relations, which respected China’s increased influence in Asia, the need for cooperation, and, importantly, the legitimacy of their authoritarian political system.

After a year of his presidency, we have evidence to the contrary, as The East Asia Forum pointed out last month:

The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) has discarded all pretense at defining the Chinese–American relationship in cooperative terms: it has now cast it in terms of the contest for global geopolitical supremacy in all theatres.

But former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating sees the US president himself, tariffs and all, as his own beast, separate from the political and security establishment in Washington which crafted the NSS. Trump, Keating said on Friday, citing a spattering of the president’s comments from his first year in office, is ready to cede to China their place on more equal footing with the US on the global stage.

“We haven’t yet got to a balance of power point but Trump has surprisingly, and I hope he maintains this, put his hand up for the right policy,” he was quoted as saying by The Australian Financial Review in an address to the Wharton Global Forum.

“He’s saying let’s have a better relationship with China – we’ve got to keep them honest on steel and tariffs – but let’s have a better overall relationship with them.”

“The Chinese believe in globalization but they do not believe in globalism … For an autocratic show, which they are, they actually want a democratization of international relations.”

Trump, Keating noted, also spoke of the US “desire to live peacefully and in friendship” with China. The two countries, Keating recounted Trump as saying, are “not bound to be adversaries” and “should seek common ground based on shared interests”.

If Keating is right, and Trump in his heart of hearts wants to embrace a new model that advocates the win-win, cooperative relationship that Beijing espouses, can he overcome the hulking Washington foreign policy establishment at the Pentagon and State Department?

The outsider president is by all accounts disinterested in the promotion of democratic values inside of China, or in the strategic balance of power in Asia. But unlike what is increasingly the case in Beijing, Washington is not about one man. The trend of America taking a more confrontational approach to China does not appear to be changing. On the contrary, by the look of Trump’s own administration’s stated strategies, it is only accelerating.

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