Trump’s Upbringing, Thoughts and Policies that Affect Sino-American Relations
Photo Credit: Reuters
By John F. Copper

Trump’s Upbringing, Thoughts and Policies that Affect Sino-American Relations

Aug. 28, 2017  |     |  0 comments

When Donald J. Trump entered the presidential race and even more so after he became America’s 45th president in January, his antagonists in the US media, Hollywood, academe and the Democratic Party, denigrated his background, his knowledge and ideas, and his policies.


Their narrative was hypercritical when the discussion turned to US foreign policy. Articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post and other liberal mainstream media described Trump as having no experience that would help him understand diplomatic protocol or the established tenets of past and present foreign policy. He was said to be an unthinking protectionist, isolationist, and anti-globalist. Donald Trump, they posited, would wreck the global order.


Regarding specifically US relations with China, they said Trump was even worse. His charges that China was a currency manipulator, that China was the source of Americans losing their jobs and the shuttering of US factories, and that a 45 percent tariff should be applied to China’s imports to the US, were said to be provocative in the extreme and dangerous. Trump’s opponents said he would start a trade war.


But the refrain that Trump lacked background to deal with China (and foreign affairs generally) was not heard much after it was learned that Trump had conferred at length with Henry Kissinger, that one of his favorite books was Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, that Trump had written about China (in his book Time to Get Tough), and that he had had significant business deals with the Chinese (including Chinese partners in building Trump Place in New York and Chinese investors in 1290 Avenue of the Americas and the Bank of American Building in San Francisco).


The question then arose: What did Trump think about China? In his book Time to Get Tough, Donald Trump wrote: “China is our enemy” (for which Trump’s detractors proffered the view that Trump would start a war with China). But Trump said China was an enemy because of weak and incompetent government officials in the United States that were taken to the cleaners by smart and seasoned Chinese negotiators, and he would fix that and turn China into a friend.


What were Trump’s qualifications for doing that? In his book The Art of the Deal Trump signaled he would be a transactional president. He would apply commonsense rules of doing business to formulating foreign policy and conducting foreign affairs.


“Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate” was Trump’s approach. Other candidates for president did not take this approach. It was unconventional. It emphasized pragmatic diplomacy rather than a value-oriented style. But Trump certainly knew how to do business and China understood.


Trump’s perception of international politics, it was soon grasped, was that of the realist — comporting with his business background, his talks with Kissinger and his reading of Sun Tzu and others. For Donald Trump, power — economic power, political power, but especially military power — were the foundation stones of foreign policy.


Trump’s prime objective was to make the US strong again. Doing this required reversing America’s military decline. This was typical realist thinking that had been espoused by many of America’s past presidents: Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan. It underscored security and US national interests and hard power over soft power.


Trump was also a nationalist. Patriotism fit his psyche. Being born in the United States, to Trump, was a blessing. He loved his country. He was given boundless opportunities in the US — “America first” was thus a natural, but also a painfully needed, idea to Trump.


Barack Obama’s transnational presidency, in Trump’s mind, had failed miserably. To Trump, disparaging America was not a good policy. Leading from behind was not leading at all. Absent America’s headship, the world was rudderless and worse off for that.


Donald Trump was also aware that the world was at a tipping point. The Pope spoke of a “world at war everywhere,” and a blurred divide between war and peace. The US National Intelligence Council had recently described the world as “dangerous.” Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in his new book A World in Disarray, wrote of the world being in “decay, even collapse.”


This was also Trump’s view. His advisors talked to him about this, convincing him that what he thought was true.


Trump’s way or modus operandi, partly learned from his growing up in the world of business, but also acquired from seeing life’s successes, as often a matter of destroying and starting anew, was to discard the “out of date world system.” Free trade wasn’t working as too many countries were cheating. Alliance systems were failing, as many US allies were not doing their share.


Donald Trump had another relevant personality trait. He did not fear chaos or messiness. As Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, wrote of Trump in his book Understanding Trump, Trump emphasized speed in getting things done, not mistake avoidance.


One is reminded of one of former President Harry Truman’s famous sayings: “What is worse than making a mistake is not making a decision.” That was Trump! Gingrich even called this the “Trump Doctrine.”


Trump also followed the dictum of knowing who is important and who isn’t in any situation, but especially during critical negotiations.


On the world scene, Trump viewed China as having a special rank in terms of importance. He devoted an entire chapter to China in Time to Get Tough. China had, he said, become a formidable world power. No other country was accorded that status. Trump saw Europe, Russia, Japan, and other purported world powers as countries in demographic, economic and military decline.

Trump, like Xi, liked to deal with other countries one-on-one. He didn’t like group diplomacy.

Donald Trump also espoused deep respect for China’s history and culture and its potential to influence the world in positive ways. His granddaughter was studying Chinese and speaking it daily and when asked displayed her talent for entertaining Chinese leaders in Chinese. In this regard Trump was an anomaly among US politicians.


Thus, while criticizing China harshly during the campaign and even after he became president, he promptly arranged a “summit” meeting with President Xi Jinping at his “second White House” in Mar-a-Lago, Florida.


Trump’s way of thinking shone through at the meeting. He felt that to do government business, as in making commercial deals, one needed to meet with the top leader, look them in the eyes and get to know him or her. Hence Trump arranged a prolonged one-on-one meeting with President Xi with only an interpreter present. This built trust and understanding. It was something Trump considered invaluable.


Forthwith the two made important deals. President Xi agreed to buy US beef and to allow US financial companies to compete for business in China. Both were hugely important to fixing America’s trade imbalance with China. In fact, they were big money items.


More was to come from their “100-days of negotiations” plan. Then the 100 days was extended. President Xi did what he promised. Trump’s critics, though, carped that Xi didn’t live up to the spirit of the deal. To Trump, President Xi was a tough dealer; he wasn’t expected to give more than he promised.


President Trump reciprocated. He sent a representative to President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative opening forum in May 2017 and gave his blessing to the gargantuan project. President Obama had opposed it and tried to obstruct it. The Western media did not like it; it mirrored China’s fast rise and would undermine the Western, liberal world order. Several European nations expressed their opposition because it did not include human rights or governance in its agenda and they did not like China’s preference for negotiating bilaterally rather than multilaterally. India and Japan (the latter temporarily) were opposed as it encroached on their external influence.


President Trump also realized he had important things in common with President Xi.


Both were builders. They felt this was essential to improving their countries. Both favored innovation and progress. Both were globalist and wanted to help the world become more modern.


At home, both regarded bureaucracy and corruption as enemies of efficient government. Both presidents saw they had to do things themselves and engage on many fronts to understand and then conquer obstacles in their own political systems.


On the foreign policy front they favored sovereignty. They reckoned that the nation-state was the indispensible actor in global affairs. If nations negotiated their differences well and engaged in astute transactions, international politics would functional effectively.


Trump, like Xi, liked to deal with other countries one-on-one. He didn’t like group diplomacy. Both perceived that the groupthink of international bureaucracies got in the way.


Speaking of Donald Trump’s character, he was brusque and often unnerving to both his friends and foes. That was his nature. President Xi was calmer, but he also could be direct and candid. He is frequently said to be blunt and to the point.


Both Trump and Xi were whipping boys of the Western media.


Trump because he opposed the political elite and criticized its symbiotic relationship with the press, Democrats and Hollywood. Xi because the Western mainstream media shuddered at the idea that China’s rise would ultimately succeed and crowd out the Western, liberal world order and were anti-China.


Both Trump and Xi understood that the US and China were competitors and that the nature of their relationship was to some degree an antagonistic one. That is the nature of things.


They would disagree. They would defend their views and their nation’s interests. But they would also be friends and allies. As Henry Paulson advised in his book Dealing with China (and President Trump respected his advice), in order to maintain a stable global financial and trade system, to contain nuclear proliferation, to combat terrorism, and much more, the US and China had to work together as allies. President Trump took this advice to heart.


As a consequence, with Donald Trump president of the United States, US-China relations will have a new high priority. Ties will improve (when Trump assumed the high office they had not been worse than since before President Nixon) and will remain cordial and, most important, will work.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *