‘Laughing stock’: How Trump handed the wheel to China

When Donald Trump lands in Beijing on Wednesday, expect China to roll out the red carpet.

And why shouldn’t they welcome the United States President who is making China’s leader look great in comparison?

Ahead of Trump’s first visit to Asia, many commentators have pointed out how the US President has weakened American’s stance in the world and allowed China to assert more dominance.

Essentially, the more Trump “made himself a laughing stock”, the better China appeared by comparison, University of Hong Kong’s Professor Xu Guoqi told CNN.

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“Ironically, he seems to have clearly helped make China great internationally,” he said.

Chinese political expert at the University of Melbourne, Dr Pradeep Taneja said China had already been on the rise for quite some time but Trump’s attitude towards American leadership had enabled Chinese President Xi Jinping – who some consider China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong – to look good both domestically and internationally.

In particular, Taneja points to Xi’s speech in January to the World Economic Forum at Davos – the first delivered by a Chinese president – where he defended globalisation and took some sideswipes at Trump, who was the president-elect at the time.

“Here was Xi representing himself as a champion of globalisation, which is what you would normally expect from an American president, but Trump was too busy talking about ‘America First’,” Dr Taneja told news.com.au.

“Rather than being the leader of the free world … Trump was portraying himself simply as the leader of America.”

Other American decisions that have helped to make Xi look good include the US decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on global warming, which China continued to back.

It doesn’t help that Trump also seems to compare unfavourably to his predecessor Barack Obama.

“Obama was seen as quite sensible, had a good grasp of policy and was essentially very learned,” Taneja said.

“He could articulate American policy and views on situations around the world very well. He was able to focus on domestic and foreign policy issues at the same time.

“Trump on the other hand, doesn’t have a good grasp of foreign policy and can’t seem to focus on too many things at the same time.

“Weak American leadership has certainly helped China.”

President Donald Trump talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, flanked by their wives, first lady Melania Trump and Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan during a visit in April. Photo / AP

President Donald Trump talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, flanked by their wives, first lady Melania Trump and Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan during a visit in April. Photo / AP

Taneja said many of America’s allies in the Pacific region – and even countries that weren’t formal allies – were looking to the US to provide leadership.

“They have been looking for leadership from Trump but he has been making contradictory statements about his policies,” he said.

“That means there is a leadership vacuum created in this part of the world.”

Despite being in office for almost a year, Trump has not appointed anyone to the role of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, who would normally be focused on the region.

“A number of other positions in the State Department that deal with East Asia and Pacific have not been filled so there is a lack of leadership and expertise,” Taneja said.

Even before Trump became President, China was flexing its muscles and using its influence to block an ASEAN communique referring to a ruling against Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.

China’s closest ASEAN ally Cambodia opposed the wording of the communique that referred to an international court ruling and the need to respect international law.

“This happened before Trump came to power but the trend is continuing and Trump has not been able to reverse the trend,” Taneja said.

The Trump effect is even making Xi look good among his own citizens.

“As with every leader, some people like Xi and some don’t but when they compare the leaders – and remember many Chinese have had admiration for previous American presidents – they feel very good about their leader so it helps Xi Jinping, Dr Taneja said.

“The Chinese leadership and the Chinese people can see that Trump is not very popular.

“Most serious minded people in America, including members of Trump’s own party, think he’s not up to the job. China is quite happy to share in that perception but they would be too polite to say this in public.

“They will try not to ridicule him and will extend him all the respect an American leader deserves but recognise that he is not the kind of statesman the world has become used to when dealing with America.”

In contrast Taneja said Xi does come across as a statesman who understands how the global economy functions and has a good grasp of policies.

“Trump has made Xi look even stronger domestically and internationally than would have been the case if Obama was in the White House,” he said.

US President Donald Trump, left, and China's President Xi Jinping arrive for a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany. Photo / AP

US President Donald Trump, left, and China’s President Xi Jinping arrive for a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany. Photo / AP

During the visit to China, both leaders will try and push their own agendas and Dr Taneja said Trump would be looking for deals – more trade and access to the Chinese market. It would also want China to apply more sanctions on North Korea.

“They may be able to offer a few crumbs of access to the market and Trump will take this home and claim it as a significant victory,” he said.

“It won’t make a huge dent in America’s trade deficit with China but it will allow Trump to claim he won major concessions.”

In the past, American presidents would usually bring up human rights interests during a trip to China but Dr Taneja didn’t expect Trump to do this. This is despite the death of China’s only Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, under police guard in July, which would normally have been a big issue.

“I think it’s unlikely Trump will take full advantage of his presence in China to pursue other interests,” he said.

From China’s perspective, Taneja expects it to seek a change in language from America and for the US to reiterate that it does not support the independence of Taiwan.

“Remember Trump, even before he was sworn in, had a conversation with the Taiwanese leader, which was unprecedented,” he said.

But since then it has been made clear to China that there was no change in policy and China may be seeking stronger public statements on that.

Another possibility is that the Chinese may seek to tone down language on the South China Sea where it has been building artificial islands.

One of the most interesting developments could come after Trump’s visit to China during a speech the US President is expected to make at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Vietnam.

Taneja said there was speculation Trump could make statements on security in the Pacific region that carried on Obama’s strategy to pivot to Asia.

“When Obama first presented the pivot in 2011, China was very unhappy about that. If Trump makes similar statements, including about an American military presence, that could antagonise China,” he added.

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