Xi’s on the Phone, Again

Xi on the Phone

It’s important to understand, if we can, what kind of game China is playing with Trump. I have had some things to say on the topic. Unlike me, Richard McGregor is an actual China specialist. And, unlike me, Mr. McGregor has some high level sources in China. His views: sort of a first cousin of my own speculations, I believe. The Chinese don’t want anything to do with xiao ren.

Richard McGregor, Trump wants China to help him win. China wants nothing to do with him: What Xi Jinping and his top Communist Party deputies think of the U.S. president:

It is hard to pinpoint the moment when the relationship between Trump and Xi soured. Mostly likely it was in May, when a nationalistic debate inside the top Chinese leadership prompted Xi to tear up a draft trade agreement with the United States that had been painstakingly mapped out by his handpicked negotiator. …

There were many stops en route to the U.S.-China rupture: Trump’s tweetstorms attacking China as a currency manipulator and a thief of “Hundreds of Billions of Dollars a year” in intellectual property; his bans, and occasional reversals, on Chinese tech companies such as Huawei; and of course the mutually destructive trade war, which punishes both countries without yet yielding the United States any meaningful edge. Beijing does not believe that it can do business with the U.S. president, let alone strike a permanent, far-reaching trade deal that might restore trust between the two superpowers.…

Trump’s unpredictable methods and blithe willingness to dispense with long-standing taboos (such as those against phoning the president of Taiwan) initially worked well in laying the groundwork for trade negotiations. His tactics threw Beijing off balance. The Chinese liked the old way of doing business, when the two sides mixed public diplomacy with discreet back channels to reach understandings on difficult issues, out of the glare of the media. …

Trump has no interest in back channels; he blasts his Twitter foghorn, no matter what the issue or its sensitivity. He has also been tougher on China than any other president in the modern era. In China, for a while, many scholars extolled Trump as a master strategist for his ability to shape the agenda and bully the Chinese leadership. For Xi, this was especially disruptive. Xi is his nation’s most powerful, ambitious and assertive leader in a generation, someone who is used to riding roughshod over critics in his unapologetic embrace of a bigger role for China in the world.

Like any leader, Xi also has to manage domestic politics. He is the most ideological Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, placing the Communist Party, and himself as its head, at the center of governance and power while sidelining all his rivals. Trump has presented a challenge to his vision of an ever more powerful China. Many senior officials portrayed the U.S. draft trade deal in May as humiliating, a lethal charge in a country with a history of capitulation to foreigners. Faced with mounting condemnation in the Politiburo, Xi abruptly abandoned his chief negotiator, Vice Premier Liu He, and led the nationalist charge against the agreement himself. (Liu also led the tentative deal announced Friday; it’s unclear whether this one will stick.) Xi has also faced heavy internal criticism for his assertive foreign policy, which many Chinese scholars blame for triggering a backlash against Beijing in much of the West.

The reason Chinese leaders decided they see little value in engaging seriously with Trump is that they don’t believe a trade deal would solve their problems with the United States. The two sides might be able to finalize the mini-deal in coming weeks, but Chinese scholars and officials I have spoken to over the past year recognize that any accord will just be a stopover on the way to the next fight.

There are plenty of Chinese hard-liners who don’t want a deal at all. “I hope that the negotiations will break down,” said one of the best-known hard-liners, Dai Xu, a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, before the May rupture. Hu Xijin, the hawkish editor of the Global Times, the tabloid mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, tweeted that “a trade deal, even if reached, will be limited in actual meaning and could be broken constantly.” As a result, he added, many Chinese “support being tough on the US, giving up any illusion.”

Beijing knows that if Trump loses, the next president might be a more stable interlocutor, though it’s not expecting sudden and miraculous relief. Democratic presidential candidates have broadly criticized Trump’s trade war tactics as counterproductive but have sided with the overall strategy of constraining and punishing China. But even if the Chinese consensus is right — that the two countries’ broad, systemic rivalry is here to stay — Beijing is not that interested in sitting across the table from Trump. Not because officials fear he’ll out-negotiate them. They believe that the United States is not interested in negotiating at all. Instead, Xi is returning the party-state to its communist roots, telling his colleagues that they should be prepared for a decades-long “struggle” with their enemies in the West.