China has the upper hand, while US is hobbled by Trump


An American president, whose new administration is beset by chaos, meets an emboldened leader of the world’s other superpower. It’s 1961, in Vienna, and John F Kennedy, reeling from the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco, is bullied by Nikita Khrushchev with consequences. A year later, the leader of the Soviet Union surreptitiously put nuclear weapons 90 miles (145km) off American shores.

A number of foreign-policy experts cite this analogy in worrying about US President Donald Trump’s meeting later this week with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, as part of his long current Asian trip. The stakes potentially are huge, including the threat of nuclear conflict in North Korea.

Today’s two superpowers are coming from different directions. President Xi, consolidating his hold, probably is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. It’s not just talk when he proclaims China is taking “centre stage” in the world, replacing American influence on Asia and filling a leadership void in much of the rest of the world.

“China is more confident today than anytime in its modern history,” notes Tom Donilon, national security advisor to Barack Obama and an Asia expert.

Despite all of America’s economic and military power, it’s a weakened president who arrived in Asia during the weekend.

Trump is more unpopular than any previous president at this juncture; neither he nor the US command respect from many countries, and he is besieged by problems at home, especially a wide-ranging criminal investigation of his campaign and possibly him. None of that disappears because he’s 10,000 miles away.

“Trump is not going in with a strong hand,” says Graham Allison, the Harvard professor and former national security official who wrote a book on the potential conflict between the two countries. “He may not know that.”

Moreover, a 12-day, five-nation Asian trip is punishing even for a president in good physical condition, which Trump is not, or who engages in careful preparation, which he does not. There will be too many opportunities for mishaps.

There are favourable elements. Trump seems to have a genuinely good relationship with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. In Beijing, the Chinese will roll out the red carpet, with parades, ceremonies and rhetorical flourishes proclaiming seminal successes. They know Trump loves flattery.

There are multiple substantive issues, including trade and real access to Chinese markets, not just a couple of deals likely to be announced, as well as frictions in the South China Sea, amid some indications of a less aggressive Chinese posture there. But North Korea, with its expanding nuclear threat, is the dominant question.

Trump plans to pressure Beijing to strong-arm the North to relinquish nuclear weapons. The Chinese have

contempt for the regime in Pyongyang. Neither Xi nor Kim Jong-un have visited each other’s countries since taking power. Some Chinese officials privately refer to the North Korean as “little fatty”.

But the most unacceptable outcome for Xi is a regime collapse, a unified Korea. The Chinese won’t sit still for that.

Earlier this year, in a session at Mar-a-Lago, Xi explained the complexities of the Korean Peninsula to the US president. This time he might offer another history lesson, reminding Trump that in 1950 General Douglas MacArthur assured Washington that a war with China over Korea was “inconceivable”.

Then thousands of Chinese troops poured across the border to attack the American-led forces. More than 21⁄2 years later, President Dwight Eisenhower engineered a cessation to that conflict, after more than 2.5 million casualties, including more than 36,000 Americans.

The Chinese want to tamp down the tensions to avoid any conflict, to see the two sides stand down, and begin negotiations. Is that an opportunity Trump should and can seize?

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, the eminent foreign policy columnist, reports that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others have done a lot of preparatory work for this week. Let’s hope that’s sufficient, and Trump will pay heed.

President Kennedy, with a sense of history and diplomatic sensitivities, recovered from that disastrous Vienna summit. In the fall of 1962, he forced the Soviets to back down and remove weapons from Cuba in the closest the world has come to a nuclear confrontation.

A show of hands of how many believe Trump could do likewise? — Bloomberg

  • This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.