On July 20, US-China trade talks ended without an agreement of any sort. Scheduled media conferences were cancelled and there wasn’t even a joint statement. On the US side the talks were based on the Trumpian “America First” drumbeat, and appeared to be aimed at reducing or even cancelling what the US regards as unfair Chinese competition, notably in steel production. US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross began by criticizing China’s trade surplus with the US, saying it was not the product of market forces.
Then Vice Premier Wang Yang put Beijing’s cards on the table by saying that “Dialogue cannot immediately address all differences, but confrontation will immediately damage the interests of both sides.” And that’s when Chinese concern and even resentment became clear.
In the recent past it hasn’t been too difficult to assess or interpret US foreign policy. By and large the world, in the era of hideous confrontational aggression of George W Bush, was “either with us or against us in the fight against terror” — but now in the Age of Trump the threat of global terror has been sidelined by the threat and occasional actuality of erratic behavior by President Donald Trump.
It is difficult, for example, to define the policy the White House advocates as regards China, the world’s most populous nation that is exercising more and more international influence, which it is perfectly entitled to do. It seemed on April 7, 2017 that all was sweetness and optimism, because after President Trump entertained President Xi at his Mar-a-Lago estate he was effusive in declaring that “The relationship developed by President Xi and myself I think is outstanding. We look forward to being together many times in the future. And I believe lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away.”
Then, on April 12 the Presidents spoke on the telephone but all that the White House had to say about the exchange was “President Donald J Trump spoke last night with President Xi Jinping of China to follow up after President Xi’s visit to Mar-a-Lago. It was a very productive call.”
The Chinese, however, made much of President Xi’s declaration that he was “very happy to talk to Mr President on the phone. Our recent meetings at Mar-a-Lago produced important results, which have been recognized by the Chinese people as well as the international community. I thank the president for [his] warm hospitality and detailed arrangements. We held in-depth exchanges on China-US relations in a new era as well as major international and regional issues, and reached important consensus.” The statement continued at length, but the word that strikes a most positive chord is “consensus”, which is not used lightly in international diplomacy.
If there is consensus between two immensely powerful world leaders, we can take it that even if there are substantial differences in national aims, there will be every effort made by both sides to avoid needless disruption of relations. After all, by definition the word ‘consensus’ indicates harmony, concord and agreement, and President Xi went on to say that “We should strengthen our communication and coordination on major international and regional issues. We should strive to produce results sooner to inject new energy in the development of bilateral ties, and work together to promote global peace and development.”
If there was ever a massive international olive branch extended it was this one by the President of China. He is a most astute practitioner of bilateral diplomacy, and would have taken into account the fact that the road ahead might be bumpy in places, especially in trade negotiations, but even he must have been a little surprised when the effects of the Mar-a-Lago lovefest disappeared like chocolate cake at the Trump dinner.
Certainly, Trump had appointed a very strange person to be his Director of Trade, because Peter Navarro, who was given the job in March, has described China as a “despicable, parasitic, brass-knuckled and totally totalitarian power”, which is hardly the language one expects from the senior figure charged with sensitive trade discussions, who the Economist describes as “a China-bashing eccentric”, but in spite of that there seemed to be more room for optimism than pessimism concerning future US-China interaction.
That was until Washington announced on June 29 that it was selling over a billion dollars worth of weapons to Taiwan. This was not only an unexpected development, but to make sure it was put center stage with a spotlight shining on it, the notification was made on the day that President Xi was visiting Hong Kong to mark the twentieth anniversary of its accession to the PRC. Of all the crass, stupid, insulting actions that have been taken by the Trump administration, this one took the chocolate cake. To further upset and exasperate Beijing, the State Department marked the Hong Kong celebrations by announcing that the US was ‘concerned about any infringements on civil liberties’ in Hong Kong. This was a bit over the top, coming from an Administration that, for example, is happy to endorse the Saudi regime’s appalling treatment of women and religious intolerance while, as, noted by the New York Times, it continues “to spend billions of dollars spreading Wahhabism, its ultraconservative brand of Islam — which in turn inspires ISIS, Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists — through a network of imams and mosques” around the world.
Then came another prod at China. One of the usual anonymous ‘US military officials’ told CNN that on July 2, 2017 the US Navy guided missile destroyer “conducted a ‘freedom of navigation exercise’ around Triton Island in the Paracel archipelago, which is claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.”
The operation was justified by a Pacific Fleet spokesman who said that the coat-trailing provocation was a “routine part of US Navy operations” and that the “excessive maritime claims” of 22 countries had been challenged in the past fiscal year. The downright insolence of this pronouncement was not lost on Beijing which had made it clear in May that “We are firmly opposed to the US behavior of showing force and boosting regional militarization, and have made solemn representation to the US side.”
The United States has taken it upon itself to act in the capacity of international maritime policeman, “challenging” other nations about their conduct. The fact that Washington has not ratified and is therefore not a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea might be amusing were it not so arrogantly hypocritical. Just what was achieved by this goading of China, other than lip-smacking in the Pentagon and deep contempt in Beijing, was not apparent, but Washington went further down provocation road on July 6 when two USAF Lancer nuclear bombers flew over the South China Sea “to assert the US’s right to pass through what the US regards as international territory.”
The absurdity of this flying fandango was not lost on Beijing, which wearily observed that it had no problem with anyone passing through international air space although, in sharper mood, it stressed that “China resolutely opposes individual countries using the banner of freedom of navigation and overflight to flaunt military force and harm China’s sovereignty and security.”
Just what is Trump’s message to China? On the one hand he appeared to be extremely pleased that “the relationship developed by President Xi and myself I think is outstanding. We look forward to being together many times in the future. And I believe lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away.” But then his administration created bad problems by insulting and provoking the Chinese President and people.
Trump does not realize that other countries have their pride and that his attitude can be counter-productive, sometimes in the extreme. Neither does he understand that by his erratic on-off signals to China — and many others — he is making it plain to the world that negotiating with the United States is now perplexing to the point of terminal frustration. One week the US president refers to the Chinese President with warmth and approval, and the next his State Department makes official statements that are gratuitously offensive to China’s basic national self-respect. There is little wonder the US-China talks ended with a whimper on July 20.
For the moment, alas, it must be concluded that while negotiations with the United States are in every way preferable to military conflict, there is no guarantee that Washington will continue to feel that way. Trump signals are mixed, to friend and foe alike, and it is unlikely that the situation will change so long as he is in power. Trying to negotiate with the United States is extremely difficult.