Why China smiles at Trump

A volatile America offers Beijing both riches and risks, writes Kerry Brown

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping during talks at the US president’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida

Whatever the idiosyncrasies of Chinese views of Donald Trump, and we will come to those a little later, there is one thing that Beijing shared with the rest of the world last year – a high level of confidence that Trump would never be elected. This can be seen by the fact that the state news agency, Xinhua, sent far more correspondents to Hillary Clinton’s headquarters on the night of the election than to her opponent’s.

The Chinese are the ultimate pragmatists, we are often told, particularly after their own three-decade exposure to mercurial, freewheeling, capricious leadership under Mao Zedong. As a result, since the presidential election result was announced on November 9 last year, Xi Jinping and his fellow leaders have been flexible in their approach to the 45th president of the USA.

Unlike Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, or Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, China has refrained from any critical comment. Even Trump’s infamous remarks after the Charlottesville demonstrations in August were greeted by silence. For once, China’s principle of ‘non interference in the affairs of other countries’ is holding good. It does not need to speak about what is happening in Washington, nor does the outside world expect it to.

This does not mean that the Chinese have yet to form an opinion about Trump. They clearly have. They have been at the receiving end of both his approval, over their initial hardening stance over North Korean issues, and his anger, over trade imbalances. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, left little ambiguity in his August interview in which he said that the US had ten years or so left to deal with China before it became too powerful. This sort of aggressive language is the last thing Beijing wants to hear, but they know that Trump with his populist style of politics is more than happy to deploy such tactics when he feels it suits him.

Trump represents rich rewards and big risks for the Chinese. This explains their ambivalent feelings towards him. When I asked a Chinese official in August what his views of Trump were, he laconically said that he thought the US president was doing ‘a pretty good job’. This is surprising given the consensus elsewhere that he has failed to chalk up a single legislative achievement so far, even in his honeymoon period.

‘Either through shrewd cunning or incompetence, Trump’s style of diplomacy has opened up large new spaces for China to fill’

But the official’s language is typical of China’s ‘look two ways at once’ posture. Trump is doing a good job for them. No American president has so assiduously set about trashing their country’s international reputation in ways that make a superpower standing in the wings, such as China, look good. Almost overnight, China has come to be regarded as a goodie in terms of combating climate change and defending free trade because of Trump’s largely negative stance on these two issues.

Xi Jinping has never looked more statesman-like than when faced by a US president busily sacking his own staff and ladling out tweeted insults to former allies. In a few months, Trump has handed China more reputational gains than years of effort and billions of pounds spent on its soft power promotion.

All of this means that when Trump visits China later this year he will almost certainly be exposed to the kind of ceremonial pageantry the Chinese do so well. This sort of flattery does not mean that China admires Trump more than the rest of the world, simply that they understand the importance of the position he holds, and the country he represents. To them, Trump doesn’t change the absolute priority they place on making sure that relations with the US remain on track. Trump as an individual might be distasteful but they cannot walk away from the country he leads.

Which brings us to the downside of his presidency. Either through shrewd cunning or incompetence, Trump’s style of diplomacy has opened up large new spaces for China to fill. Beijing now has the opportunity to exercise a regional role, either as the key player in resolving the North Korean issue where it has unique influence, or through forging new trade deals.

Countries such as Australia and South Korea, both dependent on their security alliance with the US, are now thinking more urgently about just how reliable Washington is and are beginning to pursue a more nuanced strategy.

The region now looks to Washington for security and to China for economic growth, a quandary that Trump’s presence has put into sharper focus. Everyone is now busy putting whatever eggs they have in as many different baskets as they can find. Since the Second World War, America has been the prime provider of regional security, something its allies struggle to remain relaxed about when Trump, through his words and actions, appears to go out of his way to ramp up insecurity. All of this might appear to be serving China’s purpose, but in reality it is being forced into a position of unwelcome prominence. In the past, its leaders talked of a period of time decades long when they would attend to their domestic issues, largely pursue self-interest, and be a passive, back seat presence in world affairs.

Now they find themselves in the forefront of globalization and seen as a potential alternative to the US. Their provocations in the South China Sea, in particular, suddenly carry a much higher price now if they go wrong, because China is no longer playing for a role in the region, but across the whole world.

Even a leader as confident as Xi Jinping appears must feel this a startling position to find himself in. For the first time in modern history, the Chinese have within their reach what they have so long dreamed of – global status. But they are are becoming increasingly aware of the very real perils of gaining what they sought.