Has Trump softened on China?

Has Trump softened on China?

Even though China was right, left and centre of Trump’s withering criticism as a presidential candidate, his opinion has toned down since he took over as president. He wanted to use Taiwan as a lever to reset US-China relations following a phone call from Taiwan’s president. However, when Beijing stood fast on its unalterable one China principle, Trump quietly retreated from his much-touted position indicating that Taiwan was still somehow an unresolved question.

During President Xi’s recent US visit, the first such contact between the Chinese leader and the new US president, everything from the South China Sea to China’s unfair trade advantage from currency manipulation remained unresolved.Though Trump now believes that China is not a currency manipulator. The Chinese agreed to a “hundred-day-plan” – whatever that means – to address the trade imbalance. Apparently, apart from their “great friendship”, the two leaders failed to proceed on any of the contentious issues between their two countries.

However, two significant developments happened during and immediately after Xi’s visit. One was the US missile attack from a naval strike force in the Mediterranean on a Syrian air base from which the Bashar al-Assad regime reportedly earlier launched a chemical attack on rebel-held territory.The US action, according to Trump, was endorsed by Xi.

Whether or not Xi was approving of the US action is not clear as the Chinese have not commented on this.Though they didn’t seem supportive of the Russian position – indicated by their abstention on the subsequent Security Council resolution.

What might have surprised the Chinese, and indeed other countries, was the propensity of the new US President to challenge Russia, that was supposed to be a new ally in the war against IS. And that would be worrisome – indicating the impulsive nature of the new President.

Much more relevant for the Chinese is President Trump’s policy towards North Korea.Considering that the US has moved its naval armada closer the Korean peninsula, the message to Beijing and the world that the US might act alone is rather apocalyptic.

In an interview with The Financial Times, Trump said, “China hasa great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t.” And “If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.” Trump continued, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.”

To reinforce Trump’s message, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley warned that the US would “no longer take excuses from China. They need to show us how concerned they are. They need to put pressure on North Korea. The only country that can stop North Korea is China. We’re going to say what we think, and we’re going to move the ball, and that’s what this is about.”

However, Trump’s tone has lately softened on China. He has said that after talking to President Xi, he now has a better understanding of China’s difficult situation. The fact that Pyongyang still went ahead with its most recent missile test despite all the implied threats from the US and pressure from Chinawould indicate that North Korea’s dictator is impervious to threats.

China is reportedly happy over the reversal of some of Trump’s pronouncements of serious charges about currency manipulation. Shen Dingli, an international relations expert at Shanghai’s Fudan University, went so far as to pronounce that “He [Trump] will be the best US president for China compared with any previous US president” adding that: “He is the most friendly US president ever.”

But with Trump, nothing is certain with many of his pronouncements uttered through social media platforms, suggesting ad hoc policymaking. Just ask the Russians. Not so long ago, Putin was Trump’s political idol in some ways. Now, he looks like being in the doghouse. Trump administration is probably the most unpredictable in the annals of the US history.

The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at sushilpseth@yahoo.co.au