Trump hosted Xi at his holiday home in Mar-a-Lago in Florida last April, when both sides spoke of the opportunities for cooperation. Trump said that “tremendous progress” had been made in their talks.
It is hard to think of two world figures more contrasting than these two. One is a quietly spoken, undemonstrative leader who smiles a lot and makes only precise and careful statements. I do not need to describe the other, whose background is property development in Manhattan, who uses strong language, sends out “tweet-storms” in the middle of the night, brands his opponents with damaging nicknames, and makes unforgettable television in which no one knows what he will say next. He said, during his election campaign last year, that the Chinese currency manipulators who were “raping the United States,” and that the US should get tough with them and implement “harsh trade measures.”
At Mar-a-Lago, the Chinese played according to their protocol, which tries to ensure that high-level set piece meetings do not go wrong, and that every one sticks to the script.
Trump launched a bombing raid on Syria on the night of Xi Jinping’s arrival in the US, but the latter said nothing, at least publicly, except to urge cooperation on trade. The two leaders also had a discreet private meeting during the G20 Summit in Hamburg in July. We can assume that behind closed doors in Beijing next week, there will be some straight talking.
The Chinese believe that the advantage lies with them in dealing with the US. They can demonstrate that their economy has grown spectacularly since 1979, when they began to implement economic reforms, recording an average over the past 37 years of nearly 10 percent real GDP growth per annum. This lifted 679 million Chinese out of extreme poverty between 1981 and 2010, according to the UN.
By some measurements, China now has the largest economy in the world, which continues to grow much more rapidly than the US or Europe. Trump may wish to curb this growing economic power, but that will not be easy, quite apart from the fact that the US badly needs Chinese help in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. In short, the Chinese see US power as being in decline, in contrast to theirs, and they intend to exploit this.
Furthermore, recent US actions, such as withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of Trump’s earlier moves, has, according to most experts, including many Americans, weakened America’s position and risks leaving a void into which China will gratefully step. To underline this, Xi went to the Davos World Economic Forum in January, the first Chinese head of state to do so, and made a forceful speech in favor of globalization and free trade, in contrast to the US’ inward-looking policies and Trump’s oft-repeated theme of “America first.” China is now trying to take over the American role as a defender of global trade, and as the champion of trade agreements; for example, Beijing is seeking a free-trade agreement with Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries.
Donald Trump travels to Beijing with US soft power on the wane and a newly empowered Xi Jinping ready to flex China’s muscles on the international stage.
China has also launched the ambitious $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure network across Asia and stretching as far as Western Europe, aimed at giving Beijing a much greater role in world trade.
The Trump administration, furthermore, has got off to a slow start in appointing officials to key government positions. This has been dressed up as laudable cost-cutting, but it means that some ministries, such as the State Department, are woefully short of staff at a time when the US badly needs representatives to explain the new policies around the world. So far, Trump has not bothered to appoint a new Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, nor an Ambassador to South Korea — nor to Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Qatar, come to that — nor a special envoy to North Korea. Trump seems to think that it is better to make policy himself.
Many US commentators say that China cannot keep on growing as rapidly as before, and there are indeed signs of the economy cooling down, something that the Chinese say is necessary and under control. Western critics also say that the Chinese system, with its strong central control and absence of transparency, cannot go on delivering rapid economic growth and social development.
However, we can now compare a confident China, which goes quietly about building relationships around the world, and which is using its hard and soft power to great effect, with the US, whose hard power is undimmed but whose soft power, amid all the bluster and confusion of the Trump regime, is undoubtedly on the wane. It would be a complacent Western diplomat who did not see the attraction of the “Chinese model” to many developing countries around the world, especially when the US and Europe are no longer presenting a good example of leadership.
• Anthony Harris is former British ambassador to the UAE and career diplomat in the Middle East. Email: [email protected]