Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)
Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Beijing’s bargain with Washington

An ancient Chinese curse settled over the Trump administration at last week’s summit between the Chinese and US leaders in Florida

Beijing’s bargain with Washington
Beijing’s bargain with Washington

To every question there should be more than a single answer. US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping concluded their first face-to-face meeting during a state visit to the United States by the Chinese leader last week. The visit took place in a relaxed fashion, with the leaders of the world’s two largest economies striking a friendly tone, avoiding political gaffes, and even agreeing to tackle trade imbalances. But soon after the meeting ended, the Chinese media scolded Trump for his military action in Syria.

The case for a “grand bargain” between Washington and Beijing was obvious at the meeting at Mar-a-Lago. The Chinese were delighted that Trump had hosted Xi at his Florida retreat where he had also hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe and Trump hit it off in West Palm Beach and played golf together. Xi, in sharp contrast, did not play golf with Trump, and the Chinese president has in any case cracked down on Chinese officials playing golf.

“I think it is safe to say there’s not going to be any golf,” a White House official declared before the summit took place.

Trump, like his predecessor Barack Obama, has been highly critical of Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. And Beijing was peeved that during his presidential campaign he spoke on the telephone to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, an unprecedented call and one interpreted to mean that Trump would not adhere to the “One China” policy. Trump was upbeat about the meeting, telling the UK Financial Times newspaper that he “would not at all be surprised if we did something that would be very dramatic for both countries.”

But as it transpired there was nothing dramatic about the Trump-Xi summit. China seemed reluctant to cooperate with the US on North Korea, for example. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying was also quoted by the Russian news agency Tass as saying that “China has always called against using military force in international relations and for preserving territorial sovereignty. It is up to the Syrian people to decide on Syria’s future.”

While the meeting was taking place, reports had come in of the use of chemical weapons against the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, leaving more than 80 people dead. Trump gave the order for the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles even as he was still hosting China’s president, and Washington’s swift response by striking a nearby Syrian military base was regarded by China as an unexpected intervention in the country’s civil war.

Trump has long accused China of unfair trade practices, leading to a US trade deficit of more than $300 billion. The Chinese argument has been that the relationship has benefited American consumers in the form of cheaper goods and that it has increased China’s investment in the US. The Chinese approach to the trade negotiations gave Beijing the edge in Trump’s most important meeting with a foreign leader since he stepped into the White House in January. Not only is China the US’s main trading partner, but these are also the world’s two largest economies.

For now, the threat of a possible trade war has been put on ice, but how things shake out will depend on negotiations regarding Trump’s “100-day plan.” “If we don’t get some tangible results within the first 100 days, I think we’ll have to examine whether it’s worthwhile continuing, ” US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said on the US channel Fox News regarding US trade negotiations with China.

“The backdrop to this year’s two sessions is intriguing. At the end of the year, many of the seven members of the standing committee of the Chinese Politburo will be replaced as Xi starts his second five-year term and is able to place his own men (they will be men) into the top positions. The sessions could give an indication as to what the priorities of the new leadership for the next five years will be,” wrote US journalist Tom Clifford on the US site CounterPunch.

The Mar-a-Lago Sino-American summit also showed that North Korea was a pressing national security issue for the US. Trump urged Beijing to put more pressure on North Korea, but China seemed to be non-committal. Xi’s visit to the US came against the backdrop of the fifth session of the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC), which began meeting in Beijing on 5 April, the most important political event in China. It may be that Xi’s thoughts were on the NPC meeting and not on Trump’s views of North Korea.

“The Trump presidency, with all its uncertainties, may, the feeling in Beijing goes, provide China with opportunities, or at least more leeway. According to this viewpoint, the new administration in Washington will not pay too much heed to human rights and view relations with China in a more pragmatic vein. In other words, it will be good for business,” Clifford said of the meeting.

This could mean doubling China’s 2010 GDP and per capita income for both urban and rural residents by 2021 when the Communist Party (CPC) celebrates its first 100 years in China. The country’s GDP grew by 10.3 per cent in 2010. China is ready for business opportunities in many parts of the world, among them Africa where there is American rivalry with China over winning trade deals and lucrative contracts on the continent.

Trump’s bellicose policy in the rest of the world may be ceding valuable ground to Beijing. “The feeling in Beijing is that anything that weakens its rivals is bound to make China stronger. That old Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times,’ has a certain resonance these days,” Clifford concluded.

There are no clear answers to the questions that cropped up after the US-China summit. Washington was miffed by China’s reluctance to curb North Korea’s threats to deploy nuclear-headed missiles at Japan and South Korea. Instead of curtailing the nuclear menace of its client state, Beijing has boycotted South Korean goods, and Seoul has permitted Washington to deploy its Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile shield on South Korean soil.

The pursuit of contrasting aims could ultimately sour relations between the two nations, but it is to be hoped that both Washington and Beijing will desist from spiralling into ugly confrontation.

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