Round One to Xi Jinping?
Vincent Kolo, chinaworker.info
The deepening crisis in Washington over the resignation of Michael Flynn and the Trump administration’s alleged contacts with Russian intelligence, has overshadowed the significance of the US president’s call to China’s leader Xi Jinping last week, in which Trump performed a political u-turn.
On 9 February the two presidents spoke for the first time since Trump was sworn in. During what was described by the White House as a “lengthy” and “extremely cordial” telephone call, Trump reaffirmed US acceptance of the ‘One China’ policy. This ended weeks of uncertainty following Trump’s 2 December phone call with Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen and subsequent statements by the then president-elect calling the almost 50-year-old diplomatic agreement between the two powers into question. On the campaign trail last year Trump consistently bashed China particularly over trade, saying it had economically “raped” the US.
The ‘One China’ policy means the US does not challenge the Chinese regime’s claim over Taiwan, but unofficially maintains close diplomatic and military links with the island. By indicating he might throw the agreement into the melting pot of future negotiations over trade, currency, military and other potentially contentious issues, Trump unnerved China’s rulers and raised anxieties across the Asia-Pacific region. For more background read our article Trump and China: Heading for conflict?
The key question following Trump’s call to Xi is what does his climb down over ‘One China’ actually mean? Does it suggest smooth sailing ahead for US-China relations? An immediate sharpening of tensions between the two governments has been averted, but fundamentally nothing has changed. Xi is reported to have told Trump, “The two countries are totally capable of becoming good cooperative partners.” This is wishful thinking.
Given what is a truly disastrous start to life, besieged by mass protests, muscle-flexing by the US judiciary, and deep divisions in Trump’s Republican Party, his administration has decided to step away or at least postpone a conflict with China, much to the relief of its one-party dictatorship which, with a crucial leadership shake-up just months away, faces huge problems of its own.
The New York Times reported that the Chinese side refused to take Trump’s call without a prior commitment the ‘One China’ policy would be reaffirmed. This evidently paid off. With pressure building upon the Trump administration at home, it was they who blinked first. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was reportedly one of those pushing hardest for this concession to Xi in order to diffuse tensions with Beijing.
The US media, mostly in the anti-Trump camp anyway, have been scathing in their reviews of the climb down. “Trump’s fiasco”, was MSNBC’s verdict. The New York Times quoted Chinese government advisor, Shi Yinhong, who was equally severe: “Trump lost his first fight with Xi and he will be looked at as a paper tiger. This will be interpreted in China as a great success, achieved by Xi’s approach of dealing with him.”
Australian China expert and author Hugo White believes, “The Chinese will see him as weak. He has reinforced the impression in Beijing that Trump is not serious about managing the US-China relationship.”
But while Beijing may draw some succour from this outcome, it is unlikely to lead to a real change of course by the Trump administration. The crisis of US and global capitalism which gave rise to Trump’s presidency is sharpening global tensions across the board, which of course includes fiercer rivalry between the two biggest economies.
Already some observers are warning Trump’s concession to Xi might not mean much in the long term. “If China doesn’t compromise on currency and trade, Trump might change his mind,” said Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based commentator.
Beijing could find itself as one of the beneficiaries, in the short-term, of the incredible political mess the Trump team have landed themselves in – with their immigration and national security policies in shreds. This could keep Trump and his China hawks, such as Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross who head the administration’s trade team, preoccupied with problems closer to home.
Fundamentally, however, the situation has not changed. The anti-China bias in Trump’s administration is a reflection of the global crisis of capitalism. The drift towards nationalism and right-wing populism – in the US and China – can only be defeated by mass struggle and the construction of a new working class political alternative.