China’s leader Xi Jinping rolled out the red carpet for the US President in Beijing. At the same time, he works on reducing the United States' influence in Asia on regional security, trade and economic cooperation, leaving Washington with fewer options to counter China's expansion.
The Chinese leadership knows how to impress Donald Trump. The US President’s first visit to Beijing was chock-full of glamorous visuals and symbolic recognition. Trump became the first foreign leader to dine in the Forbidden City since 1949! The invitation to the former imperial palace seems fitting, considering that Trump had so admiringly remarked that some might call Xi “the king of China” after his power consolidation at the recent Communist Party Congress.
While Trump posed for pictures with First Lady Melania, and while both sides signed business deals with impressive-sounding figures, Xi was still busy consolidating his power – not just in China, but across the region. He let his American guest enter China’s ritual center, whereas in the real world he is working on pushing the United States out of the Asia-Pacific. On issues such as regional security as well as trade and economic cooperation, American influence in the region is shrinking even while China rolls out the red carpet for Trump.
A solution for North Korea on China’s terms
North Korea is a case in point. The Trump administration has been begging and threatening China to become more active in dealing with Kim Jong-un’s nuclear threats. China might do just that one day, but on its own terms. China has obliged with US demands by supporting tougher sanctions. And just like Washington, Beijing seems to be struggling to formulate a long-term solution.
But any plan Beijing might come up with is not likely to have Washington’s interests in mind. No matter if a solution for North Korea results in stabilization, transformation or collapse of the regime in Pyongyang, China is not interested in a power equilibrium on the Korean peninsula that depends on the United States.
It was probably no coincidence that Beijing and Seoul agreed to resolve their spat over the stationing of the US-led missile defense system THAAD in South Korea ahead of Trump’s trip to Asia. If China plays the long game, as it is known to do, drawing South Korea closer into its own orbit would be an important prerequisite for an eventual regional solution that serves both goals of taming North Korea and reducing US influence in the region.
US hopes in India may be exaggerated
What has trickled through about Trump’s upcoming presentation of his Asia strategy at this weekend’s APEC summit in Vietnam, echoes the approach of his Republican predecessor George W. Bush. Just like Bush, Trump will reportedly try to talk up India as a strategic balance against a rising China. In a barb to China, his administration has lately started referring to the region as the “Indo-Pacific” and about a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.”
The idea of a partnership between the world’s two largest democracies may sound as good as it did back in the early 2000s, but the reality has never quite matched the vision. India is a fiercely independent nation with a deeply entrenched anti-American skepticism.
Western nations may now recognize India as a responsible nuclear power. But any attempt to solicit India’s help for dealing with North Korea would be complicated by the historical fact that India developed its own nuclear weapons outside international non-proliferation regimes.
China takes lead on trade and economic cooperation
And even with its impressive economic growth rates, India will not be able to close the US trade gap with Asia. In line with his both his predecessors, Bush and Obama, Trump will propose closer trade cooperation with US allies in the region to counter China’s influence. But after withdrawing the United States from the Transpacific Trade Partnership (TPP) agreement, the credibility of such a proposal will be limited.
Aside from that, other initiatives are evolving under Chinese leadership. At next week’s ASEAN summit in the Philippines, 16 countries – among them China, India, Japan and South Korea, reportedly plan to declare progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade initiative that will not include the United States. And a US-Japanese pledge to cooperate on infrastructure projects in Asia and Africa during Trump’s visit to Tokyo sounded like a lame echo to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to connect Asia and Europe via infrastructure and communication corridors.
When Donald Trump returns to Washington, he will have some nice pictures for his family photo album. But he is traveling through Asia as a tourist, not a leader. A tourist who was granted an audience with the “king of China.”