When they met at US President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in April, China’s President Xi Jinping found a way to charm the mercurial former real estate mogul. Trump hailed the “good chemistry” of the sunny summit in Florida and predicted “lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away.” The “bromance” is set to continue when Xi returns the favour by laying on a lavish welcome for Trump’s visit starting on Wednesday. Xi has grown more powerful since their last meeting, while Trump is under a political cloud after his former campaign manager was indicted in an intensifying investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Chinese experts say Beijing has learned to manage Trump, a real-estate mogul who had never held elective office before becoming president, and whose administration in its first 10 months has been turbulent. “China has an objective view of him. We’re going to make him feel comfortable,” said Wang Yiwei, a professor of international relations at Renmin University. “He may end up being re-elected. We need to look at this from a long-term perspective, and not view him as an ‘other’ or a joke.”
Trump clearly respects Xi.
While railing against the U.S. trade deficit with China, he has put the blame for that squarely on his predecessors and expressed admiration for China’s leader. In a congratulatory phone call, Trump hailed the “extraordinary elevation” of Xi, whose political thoughts were enshrined in the Communist Party’s constitution last month during a congress marking the start of his second term. In an interview with Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs, Trump gushed that “some people might call him the king of China” and “people say we have the best relationship of any president-president”.
China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, said Trump will receive a “state visit-plus” experience in Beijing.
While it is unclear what the “plus” means – Trump is expected to go to the Forbidden City but China has released few details – a protocol that lets Trump “rejoice in grandiosity” will be important to keeping relations stable, said Teng Jianqun, head of American Studies at Foreign Ministry think-tank China Institute for International Studies. “We must seize upon his special characteristics, such as liking instant gratification, and set up some things that bring immediate results,” he said.
On the commercial front, that means a slew of deals – and worries among some in the U.S. business community that the transactional Trump will be placated by a handful of contract wins instead of resolving long-standing complaints over discriminatory Chinese policies and market access restrictions.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang told reporters on Friday that China would “create a good atmosphere” with informal activities for the two presidents, so they have ample time to talk about important issues. Zheng said that at the April summit, Trump and his wife Melania had extended an “extremely warm, friendly and thoughtful” reception to Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan. “The Chinese people demand that courtesy be repaid in kind,” he said.
Trump is a popular figure for many in China, who admire his business acumen; he is not the divisive figure he is in the United States and its allies in Europe and elsewhere. The WeChat account of the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily marked China’s announcement of his visit with a picture of a beaming Trump and the headline “Trump’s coming!”
A contrast between the two presidents was set at the start of the year.
Days ahead of Trump taking office, Xi was the keynote speaker at the World Economic Forum in Davos, offering a vigorous defence of globalisation. Trump formally withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership his first week in office, distancing America from its Asian allies. “Xi is strong and confident with a vision for where he wants his country to go,” said one Beijing-based Western diplomat. “Trump just seems to spend his time arguing with everyone.”
But not with China. Trump in office put aside his grievances about China’s trade and currency practices, aired vociferously during the campaign, to get China behind his strategy of punishing sanctions on North Korea for its escalating missile and nuclear tests. And Beijing accommodated him when he grew frustrated.
Days after Trump’s Sept. 4 tweet that the United States was considering “stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea,” Beijing ordered North Korean companies operating within its borders to shut down, banned its exports of textiles and reduced China’s oil exports to the North.
But with North Korea occupying most of the Trump administration’s attention in Asia, China’s construction of military facilities on artificial islands in disputed waters of the South China Sea has seemingly fallen off the radar. Beijing does still get irritated about U.S. navy “freedom of navigation” patrols there, which have continued under Trump. “Trump is very popular with the (Chinese) military,” said a Chinese official with ties to the military, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s great for China that the United States is in chaos. It means we don’t have to worry about them challenging us.”
Trump’s 12-day trip to Asia – the longest by a US president in a quarter-century – will give him a chance to reassure friends and allies in the region, who have expressed uncertainty about his “America First” policies. Tillerson has already signalled the limits of Washington’s patience with China. Ahead of a trip to India last month, Tillerson said that “China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international, rules-based order,” and he criticized China for its “predatory economics” and its “provocative actions in the South China Sea”.
At last month’s party congress, Xi laid out a vision for a prosperous and assertive China taking a bigger place on the global stage. The congress left China with “greater confidence and lung power, more unhurried in its dealings with the United States,” Wang Wen, president of Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, wrote in a front page commentary on Friday in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily.