Trump’s China Tour


By Bandu de Silva Former Ambassador

The "Forbidden Palace" of China was actually forbidden for China’s general public for three days commencing from November 9th 2017. The reason was the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump and the U.S. First Lady to this historic site which now houses the Imperial Museum of China accompanied by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his spouse as part of the non-official agenda arranged for the U.S. President’s visit. Apart from formal activities as practice with state visits as usual, "informal interactions" were arranged for the presidents of the two countries, which included visits to the Forbidden City, Tea Gardens and the Chinese Opera accompanied by the two first ladies.

President Donald Trump’s first official visit to China which marked the third meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, their first meeting being at Mar-a-Lago, Florida in April and the second in Hamburg, Germany on the sidelines of the G20 summit in July. It is also significant that the U.S. President’s visit to China took place on the 45th anniversary of former U.S. President Richard Nixon's ground-breaking visit to China, which began the normalization of relations between the two countries. That the visit took place soon after the re-affirmation of the Chinese President’s power as head of the State after the recently concluded convention of the Communist Party of China makes the visit even more significant.

President Trump’s initial response to China after his assumption of high office was somewhat clouded in mystery just as much as his other policies. The U.S. media had not been very sympathetic to him all round. The election-winning President’s earliest remarks concerning Taiwan, namely, why U.S. should continue to follow one China policy unless China relaxed her aggressive trade policy in U.S. sent more than ripples round the world, and even calls from Beijing for clarification of U.S.’s new China policy. This initial remonstration of the new U.S. President came about despite China having had expectations of better relations with U.S. with a Trump victory. However, he was seen less concerned with China’s South China Sea policy than his contender to office, Hillary Clinton, who during her first term as State Secretary was seen engaging in a provocative mood on the issue of South China Sea controversy during her visits to ASEAN countries and Japan.

Summing up this situation around the present visit, China’s U.S. watchers observed that Trump had never been clear on how he saw China within the United States’ regional strategy while his predecessor Barack Obama had stressed especially during his second term, freed from Hilary Clinton’s prompting as State Secretary, the need to build a peaceful strategic partnership. They commented that Trump had not set any mutual goals for the two countries. As time passed, there was, however, there emerged far more understanding between the two countries with Trump’s realisation that issues with China needed diplomatic handling rather than provocative rhetoric.

With this mellowing down of Trump’s thoughts, the main purpose of President Trump’s recent China visit, which was also the first official visit to the emerging great Asian-giant - nation, had a wider objective. That was to hold what was termed "strategic communications on significant issues of common concern to build new consensus, enhance mutual understanding and friendship, and promote bilateral relations in all spheres". Within this framework, it became clearer that trump’s team had been working closely on which dominated President Trump’s agenda. That is the issue of the huge trade deficit with China which stood unfavourably towards U.S. at US$347 billion at the end of 2016. As such, it was not surprising that the President was accompanied by 30 businessmen and the very first day of the visit itself, the delegation succeeded in sealing off a total of 19 deals at a meeting of respective delegations in the prestigious Great Hall of Beijing overseen by the Chinese Vice Premier in charge of economic issues, Wang Yang and U.S. Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, covering areas of bioscience, aviation and smart manufacturing. By the second day of the tour, business deals covering U.S.$ 253 were inked by both sides under the eyes of the two leaders.

These deals included Boeing signing US$37 billion in commercial deals, General Electric signing three aviation and aircraft engine deals totalling US$3.5 billion and a framework deal to supply it with gas turbines and other components worth about US$1 billion with Chinese partners. Other agreements included US$4 billion in chip industry deals.

President Trump did not blame China for this embarrassing state of affairs for U.S. but past US administrations for allowing this situation to go out of control. He wanted it to make it fair for both sides.

Agricultural Products

Other deals included two letters of intent to purchase US soybean by Chinese importers. The Chinese e-commerce giant indicated it would buy US$2 billion of American goods, more than half in the form of beef and pork, which will assure safe, high-quality imported U.S. meat products to Chinese consumers. The US soybean industry signed two letters of intent with Chinese importers. The latter would   buy another 12 million tonnes of soybeans from the US. 

Korea and Afghanistan

Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the two countries agreed to strengthen communication and coordination on issues including the Korean Peninsula and Afghanistan but it would appear that involved discussions on the threat posed by North Korea’s missile development programme and the claimed successes in developing a hydrogen-bomb capacity as well as provocative acts of firing missiles into the Pacific over Japan, had been avoided.

Visit to Japan

President Trump’s first visit during the South East Asia and East Pacific tour, included Japan which was one country which at the end of WW II renounced war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means by which to settle international disputes. Despite the majority of the population still adhering to this commitment, today she harbours fears about North Korea’s missile development programme which has advanced to the stage of possession of IBMs and her advancing from Atomic bombs to Hydrogen Bombs technology, as well as firing of missiles over Japan have caused serious concern in Japan.

President Trump who had made provocative rhetoric following North Korea’s recent missile development and firing demonstrations, made a rather conciliatory statement before his departure on his tour when he said that "China had been helping us" with the North Korea crisis. At the same time, he also called "Japan a "warrior nation" and that China might have a "big problem with Japan pretty soon" over North Korea. "Well, you know Japan is a warrior nation. And I tell China and I tell everyone else that, listen, you’re going to have yourself a big problem with Japan pretty soon if you allow this to continue with North Korea," Trump said during an interview. What this rhetoric means could be a veiled warning that U.S. might even be inclined to support Japan in acquiring missile destroying capacity if not nuclear war heads themselves. The warning is that could disturb the power balance in the Pacific region.

He said that "of course" Japan is worried about North Korea and that "they should be worried. You know, they're very close to North Korea." But, the conciliatory gesture contained in the statement that "China has been helping us" with the North Korea crisis. This has been interpreted, on one hand, as an expectation that Prime Minister Abe might be inspired to move his defence agenda forward made efforts to "remove pacifist constraints" on the military, using his recent mandate to push for changes in the country's defense strategy, and on the other hand, an expectation of a positive role from China to mitigate the crisis. As it would seem, the North Korean situation would not lend itself to U.S. following a lesser involvement in the Pacific.

The visit to Japan was dominated also by issues relating to trade as much as by discussions on how to muster more international pressure on North Korea to give up nuclear weapons. That is an indication that speculation of a U.S. withdrawal is mere wishful thinking.

The burning issue of the freedom of navigation in the South China Seas, an issue which concerns Japan very much did not appear in public discussion between the two leaders. Perhaps, in view of Trumps China visit, this subject was not allowed a public role.

Visit to South Korea

Compared to the four day visit to Japan, over the visit to South Korea which was confined to two days, everyone was watching if President Trump would repeat his bellicose rhetoric which could risk further inflaming tensions with the North Korean leader. As in Tokyo, the President kept rhetoric out of the discussions. He also avoided the much expected provocative action of a visit to the U.S. military base close to the Demilitarized line for a photo-op, which could have been was a welcome gesture but visited the U.S. camp at Humphreys south of Soul where a previously planned joint military drills by U.S. Marines with South Korean forces was to take place. There he moved freely with troops participating also in a lunch with Prime Minister Abe. This visit which was deemed to assure continued military support for South Korea would be seen as a less threatening demonstration rather than one further aggravating tension with Pyongyang.

Over all, in this avoidance of provocative action, one may also see the President wanting to appear more conciliatory and was looking forward to summoning the good offices of China to prevent North Korea becoming more aggressive.

To sum up, as the Chinese side observed, President Trump’s visit marked only a beginning of a new era of good relations between the two countries. Better things (“Honda hondasellam”) are to follow.


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