On January 15, US President Donald Trump and Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He signed the phase one agreement on trade to great fanfare. While there is still much concern that the phase one agreement is insufficient in the long run to resolve the overall trade dispute and that many of the contentious issues will have to be resolved in the negotiations for a phase two, or even a phase three negotiation, the tensions have receded. The signing of the agreement also allowed Trump to wax eloquent about his personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he congratulated on achieving this agreement.
“I want to thank President Xi, who is watching as we speak – and I’ll be going over to China in the not-too-distant future to reciprocate – but I want to thank President Xi, a very, very good friend of mine. We’ve – we’re representing different countries. He’s representing China. I’m representing the US. But we’ve developed an incredible relationship. I want to thank him for his cooperation and partnership throughout this very complex process.”
The tone of Trump’s remarks contrasts greatly with those emanating from the US State Department or the Department of Defense, which are much more strident and combative than that of Trump. Witness US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s warm greetings to Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen on her recent election victory or US Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s comments on the need to bolster US troop deployments in the Asia-Pacific to counter a rising China.
While these gentlemen feign strong support for Trump’s policy, the particular relationship that Trump has with Xi must be somewhat perplexing (and possibly infuriating) to both of them. Nevertheless, they no doubt feel that the “political realities” as they define them will overcome this “fluke” of Trump in establishing a close relationship with the head of a country they consider a rival rather than a friend.
Needless to say, the China-US relationship will continue to run into numerous obstacles because of the difference in the two systems, as Liu He indicated in his public comments to the media after the signature. And there is also the danger that Trump’s neo-con advisers may succeed in playing on the President’s weak points to get him to make a decision which could have serious consequences for him and the nation, as Pompeo’s role in Trump’s decision to assassinate Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
But we are dealing with a situation in Washington in which the majority of the US policy elites are focused on a more confrontational policy towards China, while Trump is not. Pompeo is beating the drums to convince US allies to reject accepting offers from Huawei. When faced with a similar situation in the case of ZTE, President Trump indicated that he was not going so far as to make China suffer serious damage to its economy.
Pompeo and the neo-cons are working overtime to eliminate Chinese students and student activities in their campaign against the Confucius Institutes and Chinese students studying in the US, while Trump has welcomed more Chinese students. And it is that attitude of Trump more than anything else that offers the possibility that a confrontation between the two major powers is not a foregone conclusion since he is the boss.
The phase one agreement could well open up new possibilities for cooperation between the two nations in other areas but there are other problems that cannot be solved by the US alone, which would also benefit from China’s help.
As the US reduces its troop presence in the region and as Trump has clearly stated he would like to do, the war-torn countries of Syria and Iraq have to be rebuilt. And, in this endeavour, China and the extension of the Belt and Road Initiative to Southwest Asia can be of the utmost importance. If we can succeed in finding more of these areas of significant interface between the two countries, there’s a possibility that a closer “partnership” can be developed.
William Jones is the Washington bureau chief for Executive Intelligence Review and a non-resident fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China.CGTN/CHINA DAILY