The US President Donald Trump was the first world statesman to telephone his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping following the latter’s re-election to the post of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party at the party congress on October 25. Trump scrambled within hours in what was obviously a premeditated act. Xi had hardly presented the Party’s new central leadership at the Great Hall of the People.
There is no known record of Trump having been a closet communist in his youth at a time of growing up when even rich children would get fleetingly drawn to socialist ideology. We know him today as a rank ‘capitalist roader’. In an unforgivable speech at Krasiński Square in Warsaw in July, Trump pitted the liberal Western world against the barbarians at the gates, exuberantly celebrating the death of socialism in Russia. (Video) But in a tweet after his phone call on October 25 to Xi, Trump saluted the “extraordinary elevation” of the Chinese leader and in a subsequent interview with Fox Business Network, he hailed, “He’s (Xi) a powerful man. Now some people might call him the King of China – but he’s called the president.”
What has come over Trump? He seemed far out of step with his state secretary Rex Tillerson who only a week earlier had proposed a new security architecture for Asia-Pacific to contain China (to which Chinese Foreign Ministry furiously reacted.)
But Trump is no fool. He has deliberately indulged in an act of kowtowing ahead of flying to China on November 3 for a three-day state visit for a politically sensitive summit. In his first tweet, he’d said, “Spoke to President Xi of China to congratulate him on his extraordinary elevation. Also discussed NoKo [North Korea] and trade, two very important subjects!” In a second tweet, he added that he was looking forward to “what will hopefully be a historic trip!”.
Trump will still be received on the reddest of red carpets in Beijing, but that’s another matter to reciprocate the flattery to a man famous for his Himalayan ego.
Trump’s charm offensive aimed at flattering Xi before making a big push to strike a deal with North Korea during his visit. He must have calculated that comparing a Chinese leader to a king will definitely go down play well to Chinese domestic audience, evoking in the collective consciousness the Middle Kingdom syndrome. It’s classic Trump – the ultimate ploy of a successful businessman – trying to carve out a good personal rapport from a negotiating standpoint.
Read more: Trump on the wrong side of history
Will Trump’s hyper-cultivation posture work? To my mind, the blarney won’t impress the Chinese. All indications are that China is not looking for a ‘grand bargain’ with Trump at this point in time. It is not only that they must have decided to be wary of Trump’s unpredictability (or, unreliability), but he simply lacks the coherency to conceptualize a grand bargain. Fundamentally, Chinese interests will have to be aligned.
Trump’s charm offensive aimed at flattering Xi before making a big push to strike a deal over North Korea during his visit.
Trump may be under compulsion to carry a few trophies from China, whereas, Xi has his eyes cast on an ambitious timeline of mid-century, having reached the pinnacle of an inspiring, visionary and thrilling leadership. Tactically, Beijing would have no problem if Trump were to carry some trophies home, allowing him to boast about a ‘historic trip’, but they will be made of the stuff of short-term deals struck on a pragmatic spirit.
China has no reason to go the extra league at this point, especially with Trump’s Janus-faced political personality. (To add to the confusion, Tillerson may have already added his two bits to spoil the party by raising the petard of the ‘pivot to Asia’ just a fortnight before Trump’s trip.)
Of course, Trump will still be received on the reddest of red carpets in Beijing, but that’s another matter to reciprocate the flattery to a man famous for his Himalayan ego.
Interestingly, People’s Daily reported today on the announcement by the defense ministry spokesman in Beijing that the Chinese and Russian militaries will hold a joint anti-missile drill based on computer simulations this year. The profound meaning of the move is at once obvious.
Trump saluted the “extraordinary elevation” of the Chinese leader and in a subsequent interview with Fox Business Network, he hailed.
In fact, the Xinhua report on Trump’s phone (here) and the two separate reports by Xinhua and the government-owned China Daily on the subsequent phone call by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Xi (here and here) make a study in comparison. The report on Trump is far from effusive, whereas, Xinhua highlighted that Xi made a big (and timely) statement to Putin to the effect that ‘Russia is China’s comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination, and whatever volatile changes may take place in the international arena, China will not change its determination to deepen relations with Russia.’
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.