Donald Trump is reinventing the kowtow for the Twitter age. Last week, in fawning tweets, he celebrated Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “extraordinary elevation” at the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, and in a TV interview he bragged that he and Xi had the best “president-president” relationship ever. It was over the top — especially in light of the fact that Xi is an authoritarian leader.
Clearly, Trump, a man not known for his humility, wants something. China is the most important stop on his 12-day, five nation Asia tour, which begins Friday. In Beijing, Trump will be hoping for not only progress on North Korea and trade issues, but for a little of Xi’s momentum, power and prestige to rub off on him.
At the close of the party congress last month, Xi was affirmed as a Chinese leader unequaled in stature by any since Mao Tse-tung. At the same time, at Xi’s urging, the country’s ruling body agreed to break with its long-standing policy of denying China’s designs on a global leadership role. Instead, in a 203-minute address to the forum, Xi asserted that the People’s Republic was ready to become a “mighty force” on the world stage.
Xi’s ascendance and China’s aggressiveness stand in stark contrast to Trump’s struggles, Washington’s paralysis and America’s retreat from the preeminent international role it has played since the end of World War II.
Despite the role reversal, the Chinese will appear to stroke American egos, especially Trump’s. Expect them to ply him with pomp and ceremony, setting up colorful photo ops that will play well on social media, and giving the president the quasi-royal treatment he craves. They may even offer up some business deals and the promise of unspecified cooperation with U.S. attempts to combat the nuclear threat of North Korea. But if you read deference into the show, you will be wrong.
China is still a poor country in many respects, but this year has seen it open its first overseas military base, increase its blue-water naval capability and expand Xi’s trademark “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative (which extends China’s influence from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea). The People’s Republic has been asserting its will on a wide range of issues, including trade and the question of who can claim the islands off its coast.
Xi and company know that Trump leads a country with greater military and economic resources than China, but they also know he has been able to get precious little accomplished as president. They understand the challenges he faces: special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, the threat of a stock market downturn and deep divisions within the Republican Party.
The Chinese have also discovered that Trump is as inconsistent as he is susceptible to flattery. Only a few months before his valentines to Xi, he was tweeting his displeasure at China — “They do NOTHING for us with North Korea” — and attacking past U.S. presidents as “foolish” for deals they did with Beijing. Xinhua, China’s national news agency, responded to the outburst by urging Trump to stop his “emotional venting.”
However grand the welcome for Trump may be, the Chinese will be serving their own goals. Behind the scenes, they will flex their muscles in tough negotiations because they can, and they now believe they should. In the end, Trump is likely to make very little in the way of meaningful gains on any major issues during his stay.
As former Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs and veteran China expert Robert Hormats said to me, “Xi sees China as leading the next phase of globalization and of the evolution of the global economic order. [He] believes the direction should be and will be guided more by Beijing than Washington.” This, Hormats believes, will change the dynamic in the U.S.-China relationship. In Xi’s party address, he proclaimed a “new era” for China. To put it in terms the president might better understand, it may be the era of America Second.
The lasting message of Trump’s trip could well be the one foretold by the obsequiousness of his tweets last week. If his visit is “historic,” as he predicted on social media, it will be because it is the first in which an American president discovers he has traveled all the way to Beijing to meet with the most powerful man in the world.
David Rothkopf is a senior fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is “The Great Questions of Tomorrow.”