Among the hallmarks of Donald Trump’s campaign for president were his attacks against China and its leadership. Whether it was about China devaluing its currency, taking away jobs, spying on businesses, polluting the environment and even “cheating” in the Olympics, the hostility was palpable and ever present. Mr. Trump even pronounced the word, China, in a hard, overstated way as if it caused him denture pain. "We can’t continue to allow China” — excuse us, “ChAYE-nuh” — “to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world,” he told supporters in Indiana 18 months ago.
So what did now-President Donald Trump say when finally given the chance to confront Chinese President Xi Jinping in the capital city of his native country with all the world watching? He showered the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong with nothing but praise, calling him a “very special man.” He went so far as to assure Mr. Xi that the U.S.-China trade imbalance was not at all his fault. “Who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?" President Trump offered.
Such a head-snapping turn would have been unimaginable for past U.S. presidents who at least felt an obligation to talk tough with China. For Mr. Trump, it’s all part of a pattern of saying whatever will get him applause from whatever audience he’s speaking to at the time. Does he believe anything he says beyond the moment at which it passes his lips? But even for him, this represents a flip-flop of mind-blowing proportions. He earns recognition this week not so much for presenting alternative facts as an alternative reality. Whatever China represented a year and a half ago, it’s pretty much the same place with the same trade policies and the same tawdry record on human rights. The only difference appears to be inside Mr. Trump’s head where a Blame America First strategy has replaced the America First rhetoric he reserves for audiences back home.
Oh, we know what the Trumpophiles will say. That’s just a veteran businessman’s strategy at work. He’s buttering Mr. Xi up so he can pressure him behind the scenes on trade and North Korea without hurting the Chinese president’s public image. Right. That might make some sense if President Xi needed to worry about Q ratings or elections in swing states like Virginia, but he doesn’t. Still, there is something to be said for strategic flattery — the all-out, love-fest, military parade and red carpet treatment given by Beijing to President Trump appears to have softened up the billionaire considerably. The Chinese certainly did their research on that front.
Who do you think is more likely to be swayed by exaggerated and excessive praise: the fellow who sometimes demands cabinet members, one by one, compliment him while the TV cameras are rolling and who takes to Twitter to dump on Republican candidates he’s endorsed but still lose at the polls; or the fellow who, after a U.S. president flatters him up the wazoo, tells reporters only that “the Pacific is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States”? Hint: This is not a trick question.
Perhaps President Trump will leave the Middle Kingdom with enough minor trade concessions — $250 billion in business agreements that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has already described as “pretty small” in comparison to the U.S.-China trade deficit — that he’ll declare his trip a stunning success. That would no doubt please Mr. Xi as well. But surely by the end of the day, some Trump supporters back home are going to wonder, whatever happened to that guy who talked about China raping the U.S. and said that country had committed the “greatest theft in the history of the world?”
In reality, what Mr. Trump has mostly proven is that you can’t operate something as complex and nuanced as foreign policy with a country as powerful as China by the seat of your pants, particularly when you are as ill-informed, under-staffed and susceptible to flattery as this president. If you do, you are destined to come off as a paper tiger, roaring for the audience back home but quiet and docile when confronted abroad by a canny leader who actually knows what he’s doing.
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