Chinese leaders have long sought to present themselves as equals to American presidents. Xi Jinping has wanted something more: a special relationship that sets China
apart, as the other great power in an emerging bipolar world.
The Obama administration declined to play along, worried that it implied an American retreat from Asia. But Mr. Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, may find a more willing partner in President Trump, who is traveling to Beijing this week after stops in Japan and South Korea.
Mr. Trump has often cast China
as an unfair trade rival, and, after arriving in Japan on Sunday, he vowed to build a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” a phrase intended to emphasize America’s democratic allies in the region as a balance against China’s rise.
But Mr. Trump has also spoken of China
in almost reverential terms and elevated Beijing as a critical player to resolving the North Korean nuclear standoff. And there are signs of mutual admiration between the two leaders — one a Communist Party princeling, the other a brash wheeler-dealer — both of whom see themselves as destined to restore their nations to greatness.
“The outcome of this clash of national ambitions will be one of the great, perhaps perilous stories of the next several decades,” said David M. Lampton, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International
Mr. Trump piled on the flattery last month, congratulating Mr. Xi after he was anointed to a second term as Communist Party leader. “Now some people might call him the king,” Mr. Trump told Lou Dobbs on Fox Business Network. “I happen to think he’s a very good person.”
plans to return the favor when Mr. Trump arrives Wednesday for what the Chinese Foreign Ministry says is his first visit to Beijing. The Chinese are calling it “a state visit-plus,” promising grand pageantry in the Great Hall of the People and the ancient roofed pavilions of the Forbidden City.
The welcome is planned to make Mr. Trump feel important, reflecting the belief of at least some Chinese officials that they know just how to handle an outspoken tycoon with a big ego.
But the pomp will also be a chance for Mr. Xi to showcase his “China
Dream” — a vision of his nation joining or perhaps supplanting the United States as a superpower leading the world.
Mr. Xi is expected to propose some version of what he has called a “new type of great power relations,” the idea that China
and the United States should share global leadership as equals and break a historical pattern of conflict between rising and established powers.
The concept is closely associated with Mr. Xi, who has been pitching it since he was vice president. But the Obama administration viewed it as code for allowing China
to establish a sphere of influence in Asia, with the United States withdrawing to minimize conflict.
The Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, told state news media last week he hoped Mr. Trump’s visit would revive the idea and allow the two nations to build a “constructive partnership.” The vice foreign minister, Zheng Zeguang, said the two leaders would discuss a “blueprint” for developing relations.
Chinese analysts believe the timing works to Mr. Xi’s advantage. Mr. Trump will be arriving as he faces new questions about the Russia investigation at home and criticism abroad for appearing to abandon American leadership on issues from climate change to trade liberalization.
In contrast, Mr. Xi has been basking in the aftermath of a party congress last month that elevated him to the same status as the nation’s founding father, Mao Zedong.
Since Mr. Trump took office, Mr. Xi has positioned China
as a stable alternative to the United States, willing to take on the obligations of global leadership and invest in big infrastructure projects across Asia and Europe much as the United States did after World War II.
“China, for the first time, is not in a humble position regarding the United States,” said Yan Xuetong, a professor of international
relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “Usually the American president has the advantage. This is the first time there is an equal relationship between the two leaders.”
Mr. Xi is now the unquestioned paramount leader of China, Professor Yan added, while Mr. Trump only “represents himself.”
Asked on Sunday about the disparity, Mr. Trump denied being at a disadvantage, citing stock market gains and low unemployment in the United States. “We are coming off some of the strongest numbers we’ve ever had, and he knows that and he respects that,” Mr. Trump said of the Chinese president. “We’re going in with tremendous strength.”
Mr. Xi may also be counting on personal chemistry between the two men. They appeared to bond when they first met at Mr. Trump’s Florida estate in April, and Mr. Trump has since called Mr. Xi numerous times, often to ask him to get tougher on North Korea.
In interviews, Mr. Trump has frequently praised Mr. Xi and described him as a friend, often in effusive terms unusual for an American president speaking of the leader of China’s authoritarian, one-party state. At times, Mr. Trump has even repeated points made by Mr. Xi in their conversations.
Still, Chinese officials, known for their attention to detail and protocol when hosting foreign dignitaries, appear to be somewhat on edge over what Mr. Trump might say, and how he might say it, during the visit.
Twitter is blocked in China, but it is generally accessible on foreign cellphones. “How President Trump communicates with the outside — this is not something you need to worry about,” said Mr. Zheng, the vice minister, when asked if the American president would be able to use his favorite social media platform.
Beijing’s anxieties about the visit are due at least in part to uncertainty about the Trump administration’s view of China.
Mr. Trump’s call to build a “free and open Indo-Pacific” emphasizing Australia, India and Japan echoes the view of the national security establishment in Washington that China’s growing clout in Asia must be managed or even contained.
But Mr. Trump has also embraced those who say the United States must take a much tougher position on trade with China, including Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House strategist. They say that Beijing is exploiting America’s openness while keeping its own markets closed, and Washington must insist on reciprocity even at the risk of a trade war.
This clashes with a third view in the administration, often associated with Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, that considers China
an inseparable economic partner and business opportunity for the United States.
Mr. Kushner served as go-between in arranging the president’s first meeting with Mr. Xi but has taken a lower profile since then, in part, officials have said, because of concerns about his efforts to bring Chinese investors into his family’s real estate ventures.
John F. Kelly, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, tilted the White House away from criticism of Beijing in an interview on Fox News last week, saying China
had beaten the United States on trade but “that doesn’t make them an enemy.”
He also said that China
has “a system of government that has apparently worked for the Chinese people.”
The remarks drew heckles from many in Washington who cited China’s human rights record but praise from the Chinese news media as reflecting the more equal relationship that Mr. Xi seeks.
Mr. Trump’s top concern is expected to be North Korea and its nuclear arsenal, and many analysts believe Mr. Xi will use the potential for greater Chinese pressure on North Korea to draw Mr. Trump closer to embracing a “great power” relationship.
“As Trump needs Xi’s help with the North Korean challenge and as he is not a traditional realist, he may agree, to the chagrin of his advisers,” said Zhang Baohui, a professor of international
relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
as a partner has been a fraught proposition for Mr. Trump’s predecessors. When former President Bill Clinton agreed to work toward “ a constructive strategic partnership in the 21st century,” he was criticized for cozying up to China
just a few years after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Two decades later, human rights in China
remains a potential point of friction, with some in the administration lobbying Mr. Trump to press Mr. Xi on the fate of Liu Xia, the widow of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died in July after eight years in prison.
Like the Obama administration in its latter years, though, Mr. Trump has not made a priority of such issues, even as Mr. Xi has conducted a sweeping crackdown on civil society.
“The word ‘partnership’ has a long and sad history in the vocabulary of U.S.-China
relations,” Professor Lampton said. “American politicians since have avoided the word partnership.”
©2017 The New York Times News Service