Donald Trump’s China U-turn proves to be a piece of cake

US leader’s geopolitical bromance may influence policies on trade and North Korea

US president Donald Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

US president Donald Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

 

If there was ever a striking illustration of the redemptive powers of confectionery, it is the way in which a slab of chocolate cake seems to have transformed relations between the US and China.

After Donald Trump hosted Chinese president Xi Jinping at a dinner in the US president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida last week, the two leaders enjoyed what Mr Trump described as “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen”.

Over dessert, he told Mr Xi how he had just launched a missile attack on a Syrian airfield, a development that would not have pleased the Chinese leader at all.

Springing the news on Mr Xi like this was an insult in itself and a diplomatic disaster.

Chinese anger over the exchange was registered in the fact that there was no communiqué from the meeting.

And yet, so keen was Beijing for the summit to appear to be a success, Mr Xi seemingly gave his muted approval for the intervention and the attack was not mentioned in glowing media reports of the new rapport between the two men.

Since sharing the chocolate cake, Mr Trump has fundamentally reassessed his view of Xi, the leader of a country that he had repeatedly accused of “raping” the US economy and promised to call out for allegedly artificially suppressing the value of its currency.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week, Mr Trump stated plainly: “They [China] are not currency manipulators.”

China has been careful to make sure that the US president does not get carried away

The US president also enthused about his warm relationship with Mr Xi during a news conference.

Mr Trump said that if China used its perceived leverage with North Korea to help defuse the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, he would be more flexible on a trade deal with Beijing.

“President Xi wants to do the right thing. We had a very good bonding. I think we had a very good chemistry together. I think he wants to help us with North Korea. We talked trade. We talked a lot of things, and I said, ‘The way you’re going to make a good trade deal is to help us with North Korea,’” he said.

The warmth is more apparent on Mr Trump’s side, and China has been careful to make sure that the US president does not get carried away.

Mr Xi recently called Mr Trump to say that any response to the challenges posed by North Korea, China’s ally and neighbour, must take place at a conference table and not by force of arms.

However, the warm notes of recent exchanges between the two nations contrast sharply with the chilly tone after Mr Trump’s election, when the billionaire dangled his closeness to Taiwan in the face of an angry China and threatened to use China’s strained relationship with the island as a bargaining chip.

He Xiaoyu, a professor of finance at Beijing’s Central University of Finance and Economics, believes fears of a more extreme conflict, even a military confrontation, between China and the US have eased.

“I think personally that Trump is not very predictable and was very tough on China at the beginning, but China has been very reasonable during the whole period, otherwise the relationship with the US would have drifted too far away. They are very unlikely to have a war,” said He.

There are striking contrasts in approaches to US-China relations under the two leaders

There is a certain irony in Mr Trump’s growing affection for China, something that is underlined by economic data released on Thursday which showed that Chinese exports rose by a whopping 16.4 per cent in March.

The US president has repeatedly attacked China’s trade surplus with the rest of the world.

However, the data showed that his new enthusiasm for a closer bond comes as China recorded a trade surplus of nearly $24 billion (€22.6 billion) last month.

Trade friction

Zheng Chaoyu, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, believes there may still be trade friction between the two nations.

“In fact, even if somebody else was the US president, not Trump, the trade situation between China and US would be getting more and more severe – because China is now developing to the point where it will be competing with the US at the same level,” said Zheng.

There are striking contrasts in approaches to US-China relations under the two leaders.

Where once the Chinese wrote terse one-line descriptions of meetings between the two nations’ leaders, they now provide detailed accounts of what happened.

Similarly, the White House has gone from publishing voluminous verbatim transcripts of the head-to-head encounters to summarising them in tweets.

Also notable is the contrast between Mr Trump’s relations with China and his relationship with Russia.

China’s abstention from a UN resolution this week condemning the chemical attack in Syria is significant, because Beijing has joined with Russia to veto six UN Security Council resolutions on Syria since 2011.

China’s abstention meant Russia, the main ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, was left isolated in opposing the resolution.

Shi Yinhong, a foreign affairs adviser to China’s cabinet and director of Renmin University’s Centre on American Studies, told Bloomberg that the abstention was a gesture of “considerable goodwill” to Mr Trump.

For now, Mr Trump seems confident the two leaders can have their cake and eat it.

“I don’t know Putin, but I do know this gentleman – I’ve spent a lot of time with him over the last two days, and he is the president of China,” Mr Trump said, following the Mar-a-Lago encounter.