In June of 2017, the sky was clear over Donald Trump’s summer residence. Sunshine washed over America’s new president and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, as they strolled across the grounds of the Mar-a-Lago resort and forged what Trump hailed as a new friendship.
A consensus quickly emerged in Beijing that the summit represented a breakthrough in the bilateral relationship between the world’s two largest economies. There was lingering doubt in Washington about the significance of pledges for trade concessions and the establishment of new dialogues, but there was plenty of room for optimism.
That picturesque image has since been shattered, and there are signs that the Trump administration is getting ready to stomp on the broken pieces that lay strewn on the floor.
Poised to further hike tariffs on Chinese goods by the start of next year, and having just slapped sanctions on the Chinese military, the White House now appears to be preparing a response to alleged Chinese interference in the US midterm elections.
“I think he’s a friend of mine,” Trump said on Wednesday of Xi, before lamenting: “he may not be a friend anymore.”
“But I think he probably respects – from what I hear, if you look at Mr Pillsbury […] he was saying that China has total respect for Donald Trump,” he added in a wide-ranging press conference given on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
The comment referenced Michael Pillsbury, a China expert at Washington DC-based think tank the Hudson Institute. Pillsbury shed light on the increasingly tense relationship, following an at-times-contentious discussion on Wednesday with Chinese academics visiting Washington.
“It’s a big obstacle toward getting a deal,” Pillsbury wrote in an email to Asia Times. “The Chinese government and [Chinese] think tanks not only avoid answering but sometimes sweepingly deny the allegations,” he said of forced technology transfer and other transgressions cited in reports authored by White House officials.
Pillsbury’s 2015 book, the Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, echoes many of the sentiments expressed by the Trump administration, and is well-read within the White House, according to his colleagues at Hudson.
Despite the think tank’s efforts to keep channels of communication open, which have been reciprocated by the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, there appears to be no room for agreement among the academics who represent perspectives from officials in Washington and Beijing.
CCG proposed in a new report – presented by the group’s president, Wang Huiyao, at the Hudson Institute on Wednesday – around a dozen potential offers from Beijing to help defuse the trade conflict. Pillsbury responded: if those proposals were Beijing’s policy, they “would just insult the White House.”
The Trump administration has already expressed that they are insulted by Beijing’s actions on a variety of issues, and the president indicated a new area of disagreement in his remarks on Wednesday
“With China, as you know, we put out an announcement today, they would like to see me lose an election – because they have never been challenged like this,” Trump said in the rare solo press conference.
“We have evidence. We have evidence. It will come out,” he claimed in response to a later question, confirming the administration’s intention of accusing China of election interference. “They’ve actually admitted that they’re going after farmers,” he added, suggesting that retaliatory tariffs targeting his political base constituted election interference.
It is unclear how the Trump administration would respond to such an allegation. An executive order issued earlier this month authorized the imposition of sanctions as well as “additional measures that would have wide-ranging impact on foreign governments,” in response to election meddling.
While the order was interpreted by media reports at the time as a response to actions ordered by Moscow, it did not specifically mention Russia.
The notion that imposing tariffs to apply political pressure would constitute election interference raises other questions. Mexico, Canada and the European Union have all imposed duties on US products in response to tariffs placed on metals imported to the US. In those cases, it has been documented, the tariffs disproportionately affected states that voted for Trump.
“That’s not election interference,” China scholar David Lampton told Asia Times in response to a question about Trump’s suggested allegations. “That’s a trade war and [Trump] started it.”
Lampton, a professor emeritus of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies, went on to say that the US president is “being a crybaby” if he thinks retaliatory tariffs constitute election meddling.
The CCG report on a path forward to resolve trade tensions, “was a constructive first step,” Pillsbury said, adding that he is working on a response for another round of discussions with his Beijing-based counterparts.
Meanwhile, Trump, who has made clear that personal relationships with other world leaders are the key to solving problems, has made no indication that he is ready to meet again with Xi anytime soon.
His administration has just imposed sanctions on a People’s Liberation Army department that provoked “outrage” from Beijing. If further sanctions should follow the allegations of election interference, the “friendship” born in Mar-a-Lago, even merely as a rhetorical façade, may be impossible to revive.