Xi Versus Trump: The Emperor And The Tycoon

The Chinese leader’s first encounter with the new US President was a success, but the threat from North Korea will test them both

Graham Hutchings

Chiang Kai-shek and Franklin Roosevelt. Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping. You must dig deep into the history of more than 70 years of US-China summitry to find even a remote parallel to last month’s meeting in Mar-a-Lago between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

The personalities of the current protagonists partly account for this. It was no surprise that the encounter between the two men in Florida provided rich ground for observers of the body language and chemistry between what might almost be described as archetypes of their respective countries, cultures and, in the case of Xi, China’s resilient Communist political system.    

For if last year’s extraordinary election victory of a property magnate with no previous experience of government was the response to “elite failure” of previous US administrations, Xi’s smooth — though still incomplete — ascent to the pinnacle of Chinese Communist politics is a tribute to elite success. The scion of a senior party leader, he endured the outrageous fortunes inflicted on his and many other party families by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He went on to prosper mightily as a competent, conservatively-inclined defender of party rule in Deng Xiaoping’s reform-minded, more open China. Xi ran provinces larger than most European countries for years before he was made party general secretary and state president in 2012, at the relatively young age of 59. It is thus Xi, not Trump, who is the true apprentice. 

It says much about China’s caution in political matters, not to say fear, that its current leaders, and probably a large proportion of its people, would never dream of allowing a property investor with little or no administrative experience to run the country’s affairs. They may be discredited elsewhere, but there really is room in China for “experts”. The very word in Chinese — zhuanjia — implies a cachet of the kind that can take one far in many walks of Chinese life, foreigners included.  

True, Trump’s victory will have struck many Chinese as testament to America’s “open” political system, compared with their own. The election of Barack Obama, the first black president, in 2008 did the same. But the “it could never happen here” feeling was probably tempered by a sense of relief that it would be highly problematic if it did. You do not have to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party to believe that “Western” democracy would be dangerous in China. There is a long-held belief among Chinese intellectuals, including those who have suffered persecution at the hands of the party, that the “quality” (suzhi) of the Chinese people is far too “low” to allow them to choose the country’s leaders. The population is too large, too poorly educated and far too prey to the embedded “Chinese” cultural vices of factionalism, infighting and selfishness to expect Western democracy to flourish in China, or so this particular elite argument goes. Much safer — and wiser in terms of securing China’s long-sought goals of building national wealth and power — to keep political power in the hands of those trained to exercise it; and to ensure that they are hindered only by such constitutional and legal restraints as are commensurate with “effective governance” and the attainment of those overriding aims. To imagine otherwise is naive folly. In China, unlike the West, “human rights” are best thought of as the fruit of good governance rather than a defence against its opposite.

To set out one of the main Chinese arguments against democracy as it is practised elsewhere in the world is not to agree with it. Neither is it to say that the Chinese people will never have the chance to elect their own leaders. There are several conceivable paths to “democratic breakthrough” in China; and not all of them involve toppling the Communist Party or plunging the country into civil war. As Wei Jingsheng, China’s most famous dissident from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, told the author during a brief period of freedom in Beijing, “If foreigners can have democracy, so can Chinese. Chinese are just as good as foreigners.” Since this view was expressed with venom as well as conviction, Wei’s long years of indoctrination in prison, including protracted spells of solitary confinement, plainly failed to achieve their purpose.

Yet under Xi, the current is running the other way. A nationwide corruption campaign — as remarkable for the rivals it has removed who posed obstacles to Xi’s pursuit of supreme power as its commitment to clean government — has netted some genuine culprits. But it falls far short of genuine “reform”. Rather, it has strengthened the party and weakened the rule of law by delivering extra- or pre-judicial verdicts on the accused who lack voice either in the courtroom or the bar of public opinion. And despite the long list of senior party and military figures whom Xi has felled after they were found to have stashed away huge fortunes, most them consisting of state funds, the Chinese people still have no idea of the value of Xi’s own assets or those of his extended family. A reasonable guess would be that their value is not less than that ascribed (by critics) to Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev in the recent film that brought protesters onto the streets of Russia’s main cities. In this and many other respects, no Chinese would like to be outdone by a Russian. Doubtless, the reverse is also true.

Many lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, women’s advocates and religious believers, whether Christian, Muslim or (Tibetan) Buddhist, are also suffering under Xi Jinping. His response to what in many ways has been a remarkable liberalisation of social attitudes thanks to decades of rapid economic growth and, despite probably the toughest controls on the internet in the world outside of North Korea, global connectivity, has been to demand public loyalty to the party. Harsh punishment awaits those who dissent, be it ever so politely. Civil space, as the social scientists call it, has been decreasing in China since Xi assumed power. There is less room to “breathe” in a society in which the leader calls for wider, obligatory propagation of Marxism; universities are told to abandon “Western” teaching programmes; publishers of children’s books are instructed to print fewer works by J.K. Rowling and more by Chinese authors; and journalists are reminded, on pain of dismissal, that their primary loyalty must be to the party and conveying its message to the people.

Though they are lamentable, as many brave Chinese people point out in public, such measures cannot be considered in isolation. They are part of a bigger “China story” that, essentially, is one of national rejuvenation and growing global ascendancy. It is a turn of events about which many Chinese, young and old, educated and less-informed, urban sophisticate and rustic farmer, feel pride. Complaints about the current order are legion and outbursts of public anger rarely far away. But China’s growing weight in the world, evident across the entire spectrum from the country’s formidable trading power to its rising living standards; from advances in its territorial claims to the South China Sea to Beijing’s huge infrastructure investments right across Africa and Latin America, assuage some of the dissatisfaction provoked by the more egregious aspects of party rule at home.

Yet herein lies a problem — one with which Xi Jinping and the party itself are all too familiar: foreign policy and the domestic political order are more closely linked in China than they are in the case of any other major power. Just as domestic challenges to the party cannot be tolerated, since they will provoke disunity and national disaster, so a setback overseas is a setback for party rule at home. The party’s insistence on the monopoly of political power at home means that it is the beneficiary of success but at the mercy of failures beyond its borders concerning events over which it may have little control. This is an alarmingly risky equation in a “non-gambling” political culture — though it does have the merit of curbing adventurism and inducing caution in Beijing on critical questions of foreign policy.

What this means is that China’s national sovereignty is not really “national” at all. It is coterminous with, subordinate to, and indistinguishable from absolute party rule. The goal of foreign policy is to secure and enhance party rule at home. For, in this scheme of things, there is no higher representative of the Chinese national interest and people than the Chinese Communist Party. If it fails, so will the fortunes of the Chinese people. And if that happens, foreigners will again tramp on China’s interests as they did when the country was weak in the century that began with the Opium Wars of the 1840s and ended with the Communist revolution (or “Liberation”, as the party calls it) just over a century later. Thus, there can be no going back, or weakening of party rule, which would amount to the same thing. China’s dignity, an enormously important asset, is at stake. So are the country’s material fortunes, its stability, economic growth and the general wellbeing of the Chinese nation.

Here is the key to understanding Xi’s pursuit of greater power at home, and his strategy regarding relations with the United States in general and Donald Trump in particular. The two are closely linked.

Xi intends to consolidate his authority during a key Communist Party meeting in the autumn. He has already secured the informal title “core leader”, a sobriquet with more meaning than might be imagined in a highly literate Communist political culture where phrases of this kind convey substance as well as symbolism. He is currently working hard to secure the promotion of protégés and allies at the 19th Party Congress, one of whom will succeed him as party leader, assuming Xi indeed steps down when his second five-year term expires in 2022. Succession politics, though conducted in China without the venom and the violence familiar in Mao’s day, is still a scourge of Communist politics wherever it is practised.

Xi is seeking to cement his enhanced status by ensuring that aspects of his “political theory” are incorporated into the party’s charter and, a little later, the state constitution. Previous Chinese leaders have managed to achieve this goal, though it has tended to mean less since “Deng Xiaoping Theory” was incorporated into both texts, helpfully securing the party’s commitment to economic reform in an era when some leaders still contested it on ideological grounds. Xi’s “contribution” will probably consist of a vague commitment to further reform and pursuit of China’s national rejuvenation, a theme he addresses often, using the phrase “Chinese dream”. He has yet to explain exactly what the “dream” means, and whether it will disturb the sleep of those who are not Chinese, such as the Japanese, or China’s southern neighbours, alarmed by Beijing’s assertiveness in the contested waters of the South China Sea. The important thing at this stage is for Xi to demonstrate that he is a “sage” or teacher as well as party leader. All “great” Chinese leaders yearn for this status, Communists, republicans and emperors alike. And many Chinese people expect no less.

If all this seems like a lot of hard work for essentially vainglorious purposes and the party’s self-interest, you may be missing the point. Despite China’s evident success in improving its economic fortunes and global standing, Xi and his fellow party leaders are under no illusions about the challenges the country faces. They range from chronic debt on a scale that could easily overwhelm the financial system to environmental degradation of the kind that already causes almost daily protests and threatens irreparable damage to the fabric of material life. A rapidly ageing population is an acute problem in a country where an earlier abundance of Chinese of working age spurred the sensational increases in national output that are only now falling away. A property market sustained partly by speculation, lumbering state enterprises poorly positioned to prosper in a highly competitive global economy, and an educational system straining under the pressure of popular demand for personal advancement also figure high on Xi’s worry list. It is an alarmingly long list that includes management of China’s troubled frontier regions; stubborn adherence to traditional ethnic and religious identities in Tibet and Xinjiang; resistance to Beijing’s attempt to secure greater influence in Hong Kong; Taiwan’s commitment to quasi-independence; and regional opposition to acceptance of China’s maritime claims.

Indeed, confidence is probably in much shorter supply in the highest councils of the party than many observers, Chinese and foreign, imagine. That is why Xi and his allies spend so much time consolidating their own rule and that of the party. They are aware that China’s problems, or more accurately its catastrophes, have in the past stemmed largely from within the party itself. The Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, which plunged the country into a famine that claimed some 30 million lives, the Cultural Revolution the following decade that decimated intellectual life and spawned a decade of nationwide turmoil, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square student-led protests in favour of democracy all had their origins, in part at least, in personal and ideological divisions at the very top of the party. Xi knows that China has quite enough on its plate. He can at least minimise one risk of disorder: that stemming from a divided party or one dangerously infected by “liberal” ideas that, in the Chinese context, he insists would spell national disaster.

China’s relations with the United States feature prominently on Xi’s and the party’s agenda. Some of the reasons for this may be less obvious than others. They are no less important for that. In this category is what we might call the backstory of the US attitude towards the Communist movement in China during the 1940s and 1950s, when it defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government, took over the entire country and entered a pact with the Soviet Union. Towards the end of Chiang’s rule, Washington was a stern critic of what it regarded as his incompetence and resistance to reform. But it never managed to distance itself from his regime in ways that allowed it to live up to its claims to act as honest broker between the rivals for power in China. Not only did US mediation in the Chinese civil war fail but, scarcely three years later, US troops, under UN auspices, were locked in bloody combat with Chinese Communist “volunteers” in the Korean War. Moreover, they at first took quite a beating, despite their evident superiority in training and equipment.

The conflict eventually petered out, with the opposing forces facing each other around the 38th parallel that currently demarcates South from North Korea. And the legacy of the stalemate has provided remarkable stability, until first Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un, successive leaders in Pyongyang, have sought greater security for their regime by conducting repeated nuclear and missile tests. Yet Beijing has not forgotten that the United States tried hard to thwart the Communist triumph at home in the 1940s, and isolated the country in the two decades that followed by ensuring that Chiang’s government (by now in Taiwan) rather than the Communists occupied China’s seat in the UN Security Council.

Sino-US rapprochement, championed in the early 1970s by Chairman Mao and President Richard Nixon, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and Premier Zhou Enlai, ended some of the enmity. It led to Washington’s formal abandonment of Taiwan and the establishment, in 1979, of full diplomatic ties with Beijing. Since then, the US-China relationship has “thickened” in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago, let alone in the 1970s. More than that, it has survived a series of crises and setbacks that might easily have provoked estrangement or even conflict again. Or at least it has until now.

Yet at the back of China’s mind is a feeling that the United States has still not reconciled itself to the presence of a Communist government in Beijing. It maintains, correctly, that Washington is ideologically opposed to CCP rule, and that it would like to see it “liberalised” or “reformed” to weaken and once again humiliate China for its own political and economic advantage. In this context, repeated US statements to the effect that a strong, stable and unified China is in its own interests make only limited headway.              

If Sino-American relations have been critical to both parties for decades, it is today surely the most important bilateral relationship in the world. This is so because of the vast range and significance of the issues at stake in the relationship, and the fact that many of them have a major bearing on the rest of the world, especially, though not only, the Asia Pacific region. A quick tour of the strategic landscape will reinforce the point.

Asia-Pacific is the most populous region of the world, the source, by far, of the largest share of global growth, home to the world’s busiest trade routes and sea lanes, and the source and destination of some of the largest investment flows. Yet it is also the world’s largest single theatre of strategic contention, for the most part between China and the United States or its allies. Both parties are deeply implicated in the region’s great unresolved issues: the crisis over North Korea; Sino-Japanese rivalry focused on but not limited to sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands; Taiwan’s determination to remain independent of China; and Beijing’s quiet but rapid build-up of military and other facilities on strategic islands among the huge and widely contested archipelagos in the South China Seas.

Here is a potentially rich source of trouble with enormous consequences for the region and the rest of the world. No wonder that for the past few years, defence spending in Asia has eclipsed that in Europe. No wonder that the “coming war between the United State and China” is a topic discussed almost as frequently in chancelleries and defence academies around the world as it is explored by writers on international affairs and journalists struck more by the potential for Sino-US contention than the fruits of cooperation.

In China, the United States has never faced a strategic rival of such size and power, and one so determined to regain what it regards as its rightful place in the world. Neither has it ever been bound to such a rival so closely by ties of trade, finance and cooperation on a wide range of international issues, from anti-terrorism to anti-money-laundering. The two countries are locked in embrace. Or at least they are until one of them, most probably China, comes around to the view that it is more likely to secure its strategic objectives in opposition to rather than in partnership with the United States. Soon, surely, Washington’s benign neglect or apparent disinterest in certain issues crucial to China might no longer be regarded as good enough for Beijing. It is not hard to imagine what such issues and objectives might be. The forcible incorporation of Taiwan would be high on the list. So would humiliating Japan by depriving it of some of its islands and surrounding seas. Another prize worth fighting for, in the right conditions, would be that of ensuring, by whatever means necessary, acceptance on the part of rival claimants in south-east Asia of China’s claims to the vast maritime estate known (conveniently) as the South China Sea.

Each of these advances would upend the status quo in East Asia. At least two of them would trigger alliance obligations on the part of the United States reminiscent of those that propelled the powers to war in Europe in 1914. All of them, whether they led to war or not, would be disastrous for the global economy, disrupting trade and sapping public confidence in the region and beyond.

Would Donald Trump rise to such a challenge? Would the man who pledged to “put America first” take his country to war against China over Taiwan or a handful of uninhabited Japanese islands? Is he not more likely, on grounds of costs and the need to please his supporters at home, to lower the US military guard in Asia Pacific, and thereby encourage China to pursue the strategic breakout its seeks from the string of countries with US defence guarantees that surround its southern and eastern approaches? A glance at the US military dispositions in the Western Pacific depicted in the IISS’s latest edition of The Military Balance shows why China feels hemmed in along its maritime frontiers.
Of course, China does not know the answers to the questions posed above, which is exactly as intended. But it may be prepared to guess some of them, and that could be dangerous for all concerned. Beijing certainly will have given careful thought to the meaning of Trump’s electoral victory, both in terms of what might be achieved at the Xi-Trump summit but more importantly its implications for ties over the longer term. It would be comforting, but possibly mistaken, to think that members of the Trump administration had done the same. 

Some in Beijing will regard Trump’s victory as potentially advantageous. The “disturbance effect” within the United States, and the sowing of doubt among allies that Washington would come to their aid in distress gives China an edge by spreading confusion in the enemy camp. On their appointment, senior members of the Trump administration scrambled to quieten this unease, reinforcing pledges to defend Japan and South Korea. But they had not done so before the president scrapped the Trans Pacific Partnership, a hugely ambitious free trade agreement that Obama championed in part to ensure that China did not write the rules of trade in the region. And Obama’s “pivot to Asia” — the cautious redeployment of US military assets to the region in response to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea — is now little spoken of in Washington. 

Against that is the perceived volatility of Trump’s temperament, his apparent preference for tweeting rather than meeting, and the dangers of his “America first” policy for China, whose economic well-being depends in part on running up a massive surplus in trade with the United States and much of whose huge capital flows are drawn to that country in the search for yield. Trump’s unprecedented phone conversation with the newly elected president of Taiwan, his vocal complaints that China had “stolen” US jobs, and anger that it had done so little to address the crisis caused by North Korea’s missile tests, made the party nervous. 

The US president’s highly personal style when meeting foreign leaders will have been another troubling issue for party leaders, even though outside observers might regard it as trifling. China’s leaders are not very good at spontaneity. They have enough trouble with informality, which can easily go off script and be caught on camera. Neither do they do bonding or warm personal friendship with their opposite numbers, whatever Trump may say about the “friendship” he struck up with Xi in Florida. A key purpose of the summit is not so much smiles as to depict Xi at home as a dignified statesman, comfortable with diplomatic protocol and international norms, and demonstrably held in respect by the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. Choreography is not everything, even for the cadres. But when it comes to diplomatic encounters of this nature, it is a valuable refuge for a risk-adverse, status-conscious Chinese leader in the company of an unknown opposite number a long way from home.

In the event, diplomatic gaffes were avoided in Florida and, so far as one can tell, the two men were at ease with each other, as was Xi with the quasi-informal setting. The two sides agreed to work intensively together to resolve trade issues, and to leave other matters to later meetings. Yet China will not have been happy about the fact that the summit coincided with the US missile strike on the airfield in Syria that Damascus is believed to have used to carry out chemical weapons attacks on rebels. This at once stole the global headlines from the Mar-a-Lago meeting, which Beijing wanted to be the centre of world attention for as long as possible. Worse, although Trump personally told Xi about his decision to carry out the strike, it made the Chinese leader look like a passive rather than an equal partner. Worst of all, the missile strike was an unwelcome example of US military power and the political will to exercise it. Thus, to concern about Trump’s unpredictability could be added an even greater anxiety: he might prove far more consistent than imagined when it came to the use of force to solve international problems. Beijing will have regarded news, within hours of Xi’s departure from Florida, that the US would deploy the Carl Vinson carrier strike force in waters close to the Korean peninsula, as both a provocation and humiliation. The fact that this news later proved to have been misleading will not have mitigated its impact in Beijing.

What conclusions, then, are we entitled to draw from the Mar-a-Lago summit and the wider outlook for Sino-US relations? The protagonists, and perhaps much of the rest of the world, are probably glad that this initial encounter has now taken place. Summitry for the sake of it is usually of little value, but that in Mar-a-Lago was an exception. China and the United States must talk. Their principals, at various levels, must meet often. Second, the China-US relationship is both broad and deep, extending across a range of vectors. This is both a good and a bad thing. Conceptually, it allows cooperation to continue in one area even if there are conflicts in another. But it also makes for complexity and exposes the entire enterprise to “cascade risk” — the danger that the poor management and miscalculation of one or more sensitive issues will bring the entire house down. Third, the stakes in the US-China relationship are almost cosmic in scale. Beijing and Washington cannot manage the rest of the world, whose leading representatives (and lesser lights) rightly demand their own seats in the highest councils. But the rest of the world will fare very badly if the US and China cannot manage their own affairs successfully.

There is a final, somewhat bigger point. It concerns the nature and distribution of global power and thus of values, the handmaiden of power in every era. We live in an age in which almost every aspect of the post-Second World War order is either under strain or has already succumbed to new forces. For example, it is the developing not the developed world that now produces the largest share of global GDP. It is the developing world that accounts for by far the largest share of the world’s population, including its youngest cohorts. The international institutions set up after the Second World War, most of them under US leadership, are struggling to cope with this shift in the centre of gravity. Challengers are emerging to the World Bank and the IMF in the form of the BRICS Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, both them free of Washington’s influence. Though easy to exaggerate, confidence in liberal democracy and free market economics has been waning, even in their traditional strongholds of the United States and Western Europe. The triumph of populist candidates at the polls is a symptom of this phenomenon, if a complex and occasionally ambiguous one.

China has much to do with this changing order. Absent a severe crisis, the size of its economy will soon exceed that of the United States. Its defence spending and military capacity still falls far short of the United States, but both are increasing fast enough that Beijing will soon be able to deny US access to the expansive air space and ocean territories it claims as its own. Formidable obstacles stand in the way of China’s remarkable global ascent. They include, very close to home, the risk that the crisis over North Korea will reconfigure the local landscape in an unfavourable manner for Beijing. For this reason, Xi will not readily sign up to a deal with the United States that weakens the regime in Pyongyang, even though he is as frustrated as Trump by Kim Jong-un’s behaviour. For Xi, the existence of North Korea is a buffer against even greater uncertainties.

Yet for all that China is beset by risks and challenges, the logic of geography, size of population, economic growth and cultural integrity mean that it is destined to be a big power, certainly in Asia and beyond. For the West, this poses an acute problem of management, to put it in a rather patronising way. For Beijing, on the other hand, the issue is one of claiming its self-defined place in the world. This is not a classic “imperialist” position in the Western sense of the term: Beijing’s approach is more irredentist than imperialist. The problem is that many of those in the “lost territories” — notably, Taiwan — want to keep mainland China at arm’s length.

When considering the contest, as we have cast it, between China and the United States, we seem to be confronted with a particularly dangerous manifestation of the “Thucydides trap” — the fear that a rising power provokes in an established one, which then escalates to war. It need not be like that. For it is the message as much as the material power of the West that has enabled it to be the dominant, most positive force in global affairs during the past couple of centuries. China, too, has a message, one with appeal to many parts of the developing world, especially when it is accompanied by huge investments not readily available elsewhere. But China’s version of soft power only travels so far. And its “capacity to convene” (another critical measure of power in a changing world), other than within a narrowly commercial framework, falls far short of that of the United States and of Europe. The rather thin relationship between China and Russia is a case in point. Cooperation between Moscow and Beijing is largely utilitarian in nature, grounded in grievance about the constraints imposed upon them by the US-led post-war order rather than the joint creation of a new, widely acceptable framework to replace it.

If there is one single factor that could compensate for what we might call these Chinese weaknesses, it is probably lack of self-confidence in the West itself. If so, the sense of retreat, withdrawal and self-absorption, strikingly apparent in both the United States and parts of Europe, may well be judged a dereliction of duty that created unnecessary opportunities for others to secure their interests and impose their values. Ensuring that an “America first” policy delivers peace, security, prosperity — and individual freedom — for those of us who are not Americans is probably the true test of the Trump presidency.

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