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The Mega U.S.-China Summit at Mar-a-Lago: Let Trump Be Trump

Now, the Trump administration is going to have to relearn that fundamental lesson. As Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch announced in a tweet Tuesday, the administration refused to sign a letter inked by 11 capitals protesting the torture of Chinese human rights lawyers. The Washington Post later reported the decision not to sign was made by the State Department bureaucracy. Whether the decision was endorsed by Tillerson or not, the absence of an American voice on the subject will only confirm in Xi Jinping’s mind that the new administration is afraid to anger him.

American leaders, after decades of working with their Chinese counterparts, still do not understand the only thing Beijing understands is strength. A result of this lack of comprehension is that, despite the overwhelming disparity of leverage in America’s favor, Chinese behavior has been deteriorating across the board.

Candidate Trump was willing to challenge Beijing in public. He famously proposed a 45 percent tariff, promised to brand China a currency manipulator, likened the Chinese to the “Mafia” on cybertheft.

And his assault on America’s China policy did not end on Election Day. President-Elect Trump took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on December 2, breaking about four decades of One-China protocol. He then gave Fox News Channel and Wall Street Journal interviews in which he questioned the advisability of the One-China policy. The resulting uproar in the foreign policy community and the disquiet among his advisors forced Trump last month in a telephone call with Xi to say he accepted the policy. That was, in Chinese eyes, a victory in the initial test of wills.

Whatever one thinks of One-China, the U.S. faces a potentially existential challenge from North Korea, a threat Beijing has enlarged by supplying the Kim regime with military technology and equipment and diplomatic and economic support.

How does Trump convince China to help on Korea? Xi Jinping arrives in Mar-a-Lago soon, and maybe this is where the new administration should begin to show less respect than Chinese leaders are accustomed to.

The menu at the Florida resort could be a real sign of a new chapter in ties with Beijing. “I would not be throwing him a dinner,” Trump said in August 2015 on “The O’Reilly Factor,” referring to Xi. “I’d get him a McDonald’s hamburger, and I’d say we gotta get down to work.”

There’s a lot of work to get down on. Trump, according to one of his officials, has identified North Korea as the “greatest immediate threat” to the U.S.

At Mar-a-Lago next month, North Korea is at the top on the agenda. And let’s hope Big Macs are on the menu.

Let Trump be Trump.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.

Image Credit: Creative Commons.