What Happened to Trump’s Trade War With China?
Despite all his posturing, President Donald Trump’s maiden trip to China was mostly just symbolic, says author and scholar Jeffrey Wasserstrom
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. President Trump is returning from a 12-day trip to Asia. One big highlight that he will be boasting about will be the $250 billion in investment deals he has signed with China. This includes an $83 billion deal for China to invest in fracking in West Virginia over the next 20 years. Trump also tried to convince President Xi Jinping to increase sanctions and pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. Here’s a clip from what Trump said in reference to the U.S. trade deficit with China.
DONALD TRUMP: I don’t blame China. Who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.
SHARMINI PERIES: Joining us to analyze Trump’s visit to China is Jeffrey Wasserstrom. Jeffrey is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine. Among his many books, he has co-authored ‘China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know,’ which was first published in 2010. A third edition will come out this spring which he has co-authored with Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. Jeffrey, good to have you back on The Real News.
J. WASSERSTROM: It’s good to be back on the show.
SHARMINI PERIES: Jeffrey, let’s begin with how Trump’s emphasis on America First trade deals were received in China.
J. WASSERSTROM: Well, I think it’s seen as something that both sides can present as a positive thing. It’s probably just moving forward on things that were already in the works, but it’s something that they can talk about as something that has … Both leaders like to present this as a win-win situation as the two groups working together. It certainly must’ve been music to Xi Jinping’s ears to hear Trump go from presenting the trade imbalance as something that was due to Chinese misbehavior to presenting it as something that was due to failings by his own predecessors, so that was the sort of moment in the economic issues where people were surprised that he would do such a kind of about-face from the rhetoric that he had on the campaign trail. Presidents, once they take office, always do modify the criticism they have of China when they’re actually dealing with the Chinese leader, but this was a really dramatic shift.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, it is no doubt that President Trump will be highlighting the Chinese investment deals of $250 billion. Most of this in U.S. energy sector. Aside from the fact that Chinese investments in the U.S. is nothing new, this particular deal of, I believe it was $83 billion that’s going to be invested in West Virginia in the coal sector, and none of us knows enough detail right now to go into it, but how does this fit into China’s overall objectives? Because they are now being seen as a champion of the environmental movement, with innovation and trying to get their own emissions under control. In the world stage, they’re being seen as good guys, but this seems to be a step back from that.
J. WASSERSTROM: Well, I think Xi Jinping is likely to see how China will be judged and what sort of matters most is what’s going on inside the country. I think the Chinese Communist Party is very worried about popular discontent with polluted skies and polluted water and I think the focus of whatever environmental moves there will be, will be largely trying to get a handle on that, which is really in some cases quite horrific proportions. There will be a different standard used for things that are abroad and we should keep our eye also on the way in which the big infrastructure projects outside of China’s borders related to the Belt and Road initiative that has recently been included, enshrined in China’s constitution and is clearly one of Xi Jinping’s hallmark enterprises. If they are too, there are things being done that have a carbon footprint that goes against the vision of China as championing green energy in other realms.
SHARMINI PERIES: Tell us about this initiative that you had just talked about, the Belt and Road initiative. This initiative was, as you say, launched four years ago and what are its objectives? This is something that the U.S. doesn’t seem to be as engaged in, and why?
J. WASSERSTROM: Yeah, well it’s still hard to know what it is. It’s quite nebulous in some ways, though it clearly is starting to … It’s being used as a catchall for all kinds of efforts by Beijing to establish connections with other parts of the world, and it’s a very flexible … Some of it’s linked to the historic Silk Road. It’s important to know that the historic Silk Road or Silk Roads, because there wasn’t just a single path, tended to be ones in which things flowed in both directions and things influence China by coming in on the silk road as well as coming out from China to other places. This Belt and Road initiative is more of a one-way push with China getting involved in development programs but also establishing a situation in which more and more of its neighbors and then countries further away are entwined with China in ways that make them indebted to some extent economically and likely to be also more willing to accept or support China’s diplomatic efforts in the international arena.
It is an effort of China to project its influence in other places. Beijing makes a big deal of the fact that it’s not trying, as traditional empires did, to make other countries directly subordinate to it and it also claims to be different from the U.S. when it projected its influence. When the United States tried to bring other countries more toward seeing the world and embracing political systems more like our own, they’re saying that the idea is just to let other countries go their own way but benefit from Chinese investment, so I think there’s a subtle way in which, or not so subtle way in some cases, where there could be other forms of power that go along with these kinds of economic and infrastructure things. China seems quite clearly to want to have some kinds of places abroad where they could be used potentially for strategic reasons as well as purely economic ones.
SHARMINI PERIES: Jeffrey, if you saw candidate Trump lashing out at China, particularly the language around the trade deficit and how it was so unfair and so on, yet when President Xi Jinping came to Mar-a-Lago or this particular trip now to Beijing, President Trump’s maiden trip to Beijing, there’s a different kind of juxtaposition and there is certainly lots of symbolism and niceties being exchanged and some of that harsh terminology that Trump used to describe our relations with China has all subsided. Now, do you think that this is the way forward and do you feel that these animosities still exist and this is a cover-up or that this is how you think will be the future of relations with China?
J. WASSERSTROM: Well, I think we should distinguish between things that are unusual and things that are part of kind of familiar patterns. There is a pattern in the U.S. for people campaigning for the presidency to talk tougher on China than they do once in the presidency, when they actually try to work things out with their counterpart in Beijing, so in some ways, Trump is conforming to that kind of pattern. In other ways, though, he’s going further in conforming and actually giving in sometimes without, it seems, any kind of pushback to things that the Chinese side of this would like. For example, the press conference. Press conferences are usually very limited affairs during these kinds of things, but there is, at least … There’s an effort by the American side to push for at least some questions to be asked by the press. The Chinese Communist Party that doesn’t like the unexpected would prefer there to be no questions from the press. In this case, there were no questions from the press and that was described by Trump’s side as simply going along with what the host wanted, but in the past, there had always been at least some kind of pushback.
Similarly, there’s generally been at least some pressure put from the American side on issues related to prisoners of conscience and forms of oppression within the PRC and it seems, at least at this point, that Trump and his team didn’t really put any pressure on those kinds of things. The one way in which he did get involved that we know of was in trying to secure the release of three basketball players, young men who were potentially at the mercy of a judicial system that has limited ability … Whether they were guilty or not would’ve had limited ability for a fair and open trial, but as far as we know, he didn’t say anything about the people roughly the same age, young prisoners of conscience about the same age in Hong Kong that are potentially facing similar kinds of problems.
We don’t know if he said anything about the still murky situation of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel peace prize winner who died in prison. His wife, who has not been seen or has only been seen in very questionable kinds of situations since the summer … These are all things that the American side might not have gotten major concessions on, but that past administrations would’ve probably made some kinds of efforts on, so in many ways Trump behaved very much the way Xi Jinping would’ve hoped he would behave, keeping the focus on just two issues, really, North Korea and trade, and not bringing up these other things that the Chinese side has often seen as kind of pesky things that you have to deal with when there is an American president visiting the country.
SHARMINI PERIES: Speaking of things that they didn’t want to talk about, it’s obviously the South China Sea. Now, prior to President Trump arriving in China, there was all this posturing in terms of the U.S. presence in the South China Sea and the potential access they could easily have so close to China by way of the U.S. military presence in the region. All of that was not discussed as far as we know, and if they were, it was sort of quite sidelined and wasn’t the major thrust of the visit. Why do you think that is?
J. WASSERSTROM: Well, I think similarly there was a decision to really focus on these two issues, North Korea and trade, and so things that didn’t fit in with that framework got shuffled to the bottom of the deck. It was also a relatively incoherent trip across Asia, is what some of the commentators have been saying, that the focus shifted depending on where Trump was. One of the continuities was his expressions of esteem for figures who are widely regarded as strongmen figures exerting kind of authoritarian control over the population, so this was another thing that basically didn’t get attention while he was in Beijing which was probably something that Beijing would prefer. There was then some discussion of South China Sea when he moved to Southeast Asia.
SHARMINI PERIES: Alright, now the one big issue that I saw being talked about in a lot of the financial press is that this $250 billion in trade deals that was signed, a lot of them had a sense of unease that these are just agreements, that they won’t somehow materialize in concrete form. Is there a history of that with China?
J. WASSERSTROM: Yeah, there’s a history of there being kind of a disconnect between some of the things promised and some of the things that end up emerging, and they are also … Some of them are also high profile things for show. I think the bigger disconnect, though, is actually that from Xi Jinping’s side, that when he went down to the APEC summit, he gave a speech, something like what he gave at DaVos where he talked about his commitment to globalization and to opening China in various ways to the world at the same time that the overall trend under Xi has been to close China off more. It’s just a very strange kind of situation now to figure out … He partly seems to be getting a pass on this simply because he’s not talking in explicitly economic nationalist terms at a time when Trump and many other world leaders are talking in explicitly economic nationalist terms, that there’s a kind of willingness to look the other way at other economic nationalist moves that are being made, including the continuing clamping down on the internet and the access of international businesses to China via the internet.
These are things that go against the grain of the discussion of China as a leader in globalization, but for some reason it gets sort of drowned out by the happy talk at these international meetings by Xi and to some extent also the happy talk about these kinds of trade agreements. I think a bigger picture is, if we look overall at how things are going with the Chinese economy and Chinese politics alike, this is not a period of increasing openness to the world and certainly not when it comes to the flow of ideas.
SHARMINI PERIES: Alright, I’ve been speaking with Jeffrey Wasserstrom. He is the co-author of ‘China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.’ I thank you so much for joining us today, Jeffrey.
J. WASSERSTROM: It’s been a pleasure.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.