The Skeptics

Will Another Pivot to Asia Be Lost in a New Middle Eastern War?

It’s a toss-up whether the most important international event last week was the cruise missile attack on Syria or the summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. For the United States, Asia is the most critical region, with growing economic opportunities and security challenges. However, the Middle East seems to forever monopolize Washington’s attention and swallow up its resources.

President Trump’s approach towards China has been in almost constant flux. During the campaign he focused on Beijing’s alleged trade manipulation. After the election he seemed to question several other elements of the bilateral relationship, including the understanding that there is only “one China.” When testifying before the Senate Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested coercing Beijing to take a tougher stance toward North Korea. He also appeared to propose blockading islands and other territories claimed by the People’s Republic of China.

This was more than an agenda for diplomatic confrontation. It was an agenda for possible war.

But Tillerson downplayed these and other controversies during his visit to Beijing last month. He appeared to adopt his hosts’ approach when he described the bilateral relationship as one of “nonconflict, nonconfrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” News reports indicated that he was tougher in private, though that had any practical impact was not clear. After Tillerson’s return the administration kept up its pressure on China to toughen the latter’s stance toward Pyongyang, with the president threatening to “solve the problem” alone, taken as a threat of military action, and backing his talk with the deployment of a carrier off the Korean coast.

No one knew what to expect when the two leaders met. The American president was at a distinct disadvantage. He knew nothing about China, while Xi had spent time in America, and had few trusted officials knowledgeable about the PRC, with most of State Department’s political positions still unfilled. President Trump also was known to be reluctant to endure the sort of detailed briefings which could help redress his personal limitations.

Although at past summits the U.S. typically prepared active agendas with specific demands, none seemed evident this time. The main objective appeared to be for the two leaders to get better acquainted and demonstrate that they could behave civilly toward one another.

They met this very low standard. Before Xi’s arrival Secretary Tillerson acknowledged “the challenges China can present to American interests,” but the administration’s predictions and assessments were uniformly positive. President Trump naturally exhibited his penchant for overstatement, declaring: “The relationship developed by President Xi and myself I think is outstanding. We look forward to meeting together many times in the future.” In briefing the press Tillerson similarly cited as positive “both the atmosphere and the chemistry between the two leaders.”

To the uninitiated this might appear to be a modest accomplishment at best. At the Thursday dinner President Trump admitted: “So far, I have gotten nothing. Absolutely nothing. But we have developed a friendship.” Indeed, he expected that “we are going to have a very, very great relationship.”

It is hard to imagine President Xi describing their encounter to his colleagues in similar terms—having become good buddies with the mercurial American after a few hours of conversation. Nevertheless, the latter suggested that this personal connection would yield policy benefits: “I think we have made tremendous progress in our relationship with China.” As a result, said President Trump, “lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away.”

The two sides agreed to a new and enhanced dialogue to cover security, economic, law enforcement and social issues. Perhaps the most detailed measure was a hundred-day plan to address trade issues. Admitted Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross: “This may be ambitious, but it’s a big sea change in the pace of discussions.”

Of course, the existence of a “plan” doesn’t mean anything will actually be decided, and at any particular time. Nor does another negotiating forum guarantee any particular policy change, presumably the Trump administration’s objective. After all, last year President Trump proclaimed: “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they are doing.” If true, they are still doing so today, after the meeting.