A classic 1986 Saturday Night Live skit, titled “President Reagan, Mastermind,” portrayed him as a cunning and focused operator within the confines of the Oval Office. The bit was meant as a comedic rebuke to Reagan’s professions of ignorance about the unfolding Iran-Contra scandal, and it quickly became seen as a brilliant piece of political humor since it offered a reinterpretation jarringly at odds with the genial but clueless figure the Gipper’s critics often sketched out.
A similar redefinition of President Trump appeared last week on the op-ed pages of the Financial Times. Mark Leonard, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations, reports that Chinese elites hold a very different perspective on Trump’s foreign policy than what is offered by the conventional wisdom in the West, which regards the president as a geopolitical naif and a reckless, impulsive leader. In stark contrast, Leonard writes that the officials and experts he recently visited in Beijing are “awed by [Trump’s] skill as a strategist and tactician.”
According to Leonard, his Chinese interlocutors describe Trump:
as a master tactician, focusing on one issue at a time, and extracting as many concessions as he can. They speak of the skilful way Mr Trump has treated President Xi Jinping. ‘Look at how he handled North Korea,’ one says. ‘He got Xi Jinping to agree to UN sanctions [half a dozen] times, creating an economic stranglehold on the country. China almost turned North Korea into a sworn enemy of the country.’ But they also see him as a strategist, willing to declare a truce in each area when there are no more concessions to be had, and then start again with a new front.
And while many of Trump’s detractors in the West regard his policy toward Moscow as craven and sycophantic, Leonard’s sources perceive a wily geopolitical strategy: “They see it as Henry Kissinger in reverse. In 1972, the US nudged China off the Soviet axis in order to put pressure on its real rival, the Soviet Union. Today Mr Trump is reaching out to Russia in order to isolate China.”
The Chinese assessment of Trump, at least as presented by Leonard, offers a strong counterpoint to the prevailing narrative about the cogency of the president’s foreign policy as well as to the partisan accusations alleging that the president, as one Democratic senator charges, has somehow become “a Russian asset.”
Indeed, the Daily Beast reports that Henry Kissinger himself, who has met at least three times with Trump since the 2016 presidential campaign, has advanced the idea that Washington should attempt a rapprochement with Moscow in order to counter Beijing’s growing global power, and that the pitch has found receptive ears inside the administration. And one former administration official describes Trump’s approach toward Russia as “the reverse of the Nixon-China play.”
Last week’s meeting in Washington between President Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, offers additional evidence for the narrative Leonard advances. For months Beijing has been wooing EU leaders with offers of an anti-U.S. alliance (see here and here), and Juncker showed up at the White House fresh from his own summit in Beijing where Chinese officials renewed their pitch. Yet for all of the hand-wringing about Trump pushing key U.S. allies into Beijing’s embrace, Trump and Juncker emerged from their meeting to announce a high-level push for a new U.S/EU trade accord.
Indeed, according to Trump’s chief economic adviser, Juncker also signaled that the EU “will be allied” with the United States in countering China on global trade issues. Commenting on the EU deal, one Washington observer notes, “The president created so many battles on trade that now he has gotten everyone to say we are all on your side on China.” And one journalist observes that Beijing ended up the loser because “Trump has cut himself far more leeway to indulge in China-bashing.”
If Trump is indeed attempting to pull off a Kissingerian power play with Russia and China, the prospects for major success are in doubt. The Nixon administration was able to capitalize on years of bitter ideological disputes between Moscow and Beijing, not to mention the outbreak of actual military conflict in 1969 that threatened to escalate to the nuclear level. Fissures do exist in the current Russian-Chinese relationship, and it must grate Vladimir Putin’s nationalist sensibilities that Moscow is widely seen as Beijing’s junior partner in global affairs. Nonetheless, there does not appear to be much in the way of strategic opportunity for the Trump administration to exploit.
Still, Trump’s machinations may be having some geopolitical effect. Leonard reveals that because of Trump’s multiple pressure points on Beijing, “many Chinese experts are quietly calling for a rethink of the longer-term strategy. They want to prepare the ground for a new grand bargain with the US based on Chinese retrenchment. Many feel that Mr Xi has over-reached and worry that it was a mistake simultaneously to antagonise the US economically and militarily in the South China Sea.”
The scope and depth of this sentiment are unclear, though one China expert reports hearing similar things in Beijing. Nonetheless, it is a striking development at a time when the general narrative within the U.S. foreign policy commentariat is about China’s global ascendancy amid Trump’s fecklessness. And it does underscore the possibility that the current U.S. president may be a more multifaceted leader than his most vocal critics allow.
UPDATE (August 5, 2018): Jerome A. Cohen, a leading U.S. expert on China, likewise reports serious foreign policy debates underway in Beijing:
Many Chinese critics, for example, believe that Xi has moved too unwisely in rapidly unfolding the enormously expensive Belt and Road Initiative, in militarizing the South China Sea and ostentatiously spurning the Philippine arbitration against China in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and in uncertainly responding to Trump’s bewildering trade-war challenge.
The Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times newspaper sees the same thing, reporting that in private “more Chinese officials and intellectuals are expressing doubts about [Xi Jinping’s] handling of relations with the US.” He quotes one Chinese business executive as saying that among the Chinese bureaucracy’s rank and file, “more people are now questioning whether it was right for Xi to go against the US so openly”. He adds that a “senior US business executive who meets frequently with senior Chinese officials said that since the trade war began in earnest in May, they have displayed ‘a mix of confidence, frustration, anger and insecurity — and at any moment one of those is more dominant than the rest'”.
UPDATE (August 7, 2018): Bloomberg Businessweek today quotes a Chinese observer as saying that the US-China “trade war has made China more humble,” and reports that:
grumbling has begun to echo around the halls of government. One Finance Ministry official says China made a “major misjudgment” of Trump’s determination to confront the country. Others wonder if China underestimated the durability of American power. “The U.S. will use its hegemonic system, established since World War II from trade, finance, currency, military, and so on, to stop the rise of China,” Ren Zeping, chief economist at China Evergrande Group, wrote in one widely read commentary published on June 5.
UPDATE (August 9, 2018): Reuters similarly reports:
“Many economists and intellectuals are upset about China’s trade war policies,” an academic at a Chinese policy think tank told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. “The overarching view is that China’s current stance has been too hard-line and the leadership has clearly misjudged the situation.”
An early version of this essay appears at Asia Sentinel.