America first? Setting the stage for Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit with Donald Trump

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By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

People’s Republic of China (PRC) President Xi Jinping will make an official visit to Washington, DC, perhaps as soon as April 2017, and it is being planned as a “muscular” demonstration of Beijing’s status, overshadowing all other Asian influences.

It is President Xi who is coming to President Trump, and not the other way around.

The PRC team believes that it can shape the agenda because of the “inexperience” of President Trump and his team, and because of the “inevitability” of the PRC’s strategic forward momentum. [The “inevitability” of world communism was also earlier portrayed as a dynamic which conventional wisdom said could not be refuted.]

Sources in Beijing confirmed that President Xi was insisting that the visit, from the PRC side, should demonstrate that the U.S.-PRC relationship was the paramount strategic relationship in the world. PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on March 8, 2017, that the telephone call between the two heads of state in February 2017 had paved the way for stable bilateral relations.

He urged both nations to overcome their differences and the “zero sum” mindset, and to look towards building a “mature” relationship, noting: “Our interests are closely intertwined … It is impossible to build one’s success at the expense of the other.”

To begin with, President Xi was attempting to ensure that his visit would be met with at least the same level of protocol and attention as the visit to Washington, DC, in February 2017 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. That was an official visit, not a state visit.

It seems unlikely that, at this stage, President Trump would be prepared to offer a full state visit to President Xi, and this initial visit seems likely to be set at “official” status.

But President Xi also was likely to try to emphatically ensure that the Dec. 2, 2016, telephone-call dalliance by President Trump before his inauguration with Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan) President Tsai Ing-wen was firmly over and forgotten.

President-elect Trump had even teased after that telephone call that perhaps it was time for the U.S. to re-evaluate its support for the “One China Policy”, technically advocated by both the PRC and the ROC.

President Xi wanted to reassure himself (and the PRC Government) that the Tsai-Trump telephone call was “a mistake”, and that Trump has now “seen the error of his ways”.

But there remained the lingering doubt that Trump knew exactly what he was doing with the Tsai call and subsequent provocation on the One China policy.

The reality which the Trump team understood and accepted was, in fact, that it was not the U.S.’ place or in its interest to unilaterally re-evaluate what the “two Chinas” already agreed. So President-elect Trump’s comment was very deliberate in highlighting that the U.S. would evaluate its interests in the region on its own terms.

The reality was that — regardless of that “One-China” strategic convenience defined by the PRC and ROC — the U.S. under Trump needed to bolster its ability to work with Taiwan to fill a critical geopolitical gap to constrain the PRC from moving to break through the first island chain which keeps the PRC from reaching into the Central Pacific in a meaningful strategic fashion.

Trump and his team intrinsically think in geopolitical terms, whereas the former (Barack Obama) Administration thought in globalist, ideological terms.

Xi felt that the situation had returned to “normal” — that is, the “Obama normal”, with Washington accepting Beijing’s strategic onward march — when President Trump’s daughter and granddaughter, Ivanka and Arabella, on Feb 1, attended a Chinese New Year function at the PRC Embassy in Washington, DC, at the invitation of Amb. Cui Tiankai.

That event was viewed in Beijing and Taipei as highly symbolic and important.

It was not viewed as such by the Trump White House. It was a cheap throwaway gambit, designed to calm a tendency in Beijing to panic.

The Trump team knew how Beijing would react, but also knew that it offered nothing of substance to the PRC.

Then there was a telephone call between Presidents Trump and Xi on Feb. 10, which was indeed important to both sides, which have profoundly linked economies. And President Trump’s acknowledgment of the existence of the “One China Policy” cleared the path for “normal” discussions.

In reality, “One China” was never what was being challenged by Trump: the concept of Beijing dictating terms was what he challenged. And nothing has changed in that Trump White House view of the situation.

Certainly, the Trump team, having set out plainly that a new team and a new approach had arrived in Washington, was ready to move on to handling a complex situation within the context that now Washington would resume a (or the) leadership role in managing the equation.

But the White House team is under no illusion that its task has been made more difficult by the transformation of the balance caused by how the U.S. handled events during the past two decades and more. As well as by how well the PRC had, in many respects, exploited the opportunities presented.

How, then, does the Trump team prepare for President Xi’s visit?

1. Symbolism/Information Dominance: Remember à priori that it is President Xi who is coming to President Trump, and not the other way around.

Much of the PRC approach has, for a half-century, been in using blunt diplomatic force to ensure that it is treated, often disproportionately, with respect, and yet it does not reciprocate that respect. The last visit by a U.S. President (Barack Obama, on Sept. 4, 2016, for a G20 Summit) was met with a very deliberate insult in the manner of his reception at Hangzhou. This was a calculated snub to the U.S., even though President Obama had, by his mishandling of the U.S.-PRC balance, allowed the PRC to make major strategic gains in the South China Sea, Africa, and elsewhere.

Can the new U.S. Administration, if it hopes to materially re-set the terms of the relationship, allow Beijing to see that this snub to the U.S. was unnoticed? Understanding that the symbolism drives much of Beijing’s response, the Trump Administration cannot allow that snub to be forgotten. Thus, no matter how much can be accomplished in meaningful terms during discussions, the White House understands that it would set back U.S. psychological dominance of the situation if it was to allow the PRC to get away with the 2017 insult.

So, it can be assumed that Beijing would push for President Xi to be invited to Mar-a-Lago in Florida, as Prime Minister Abe was. Indeed, would President Trump not invite Mr Xi, given that such a symbol of rejection may be a “snub too far”, even though the Xi snub of Obama was well beyond anything which could have been expected?

2. A cost-benefit presentation, or Recognizing a Quid Pro Quo on the South China Sea: Beijing has objected profoundly to the U.S. and its allies position that the South China Sea should be seen as international waters. The PRC has attempted to present as a fait accompli its creation of an artificial territorial projection into the South China Sea, and, in so doing, has actually vitiated the effectiveness of the United Nations as a forum of authority.

In essence, and despite the historical legal precedents of the Nine Dash Line claims in the South China Sea (which also give rights, perhaps greater rights, to the Republic of China, which is an older legal entity representing “One China” than the PRC), the deliberate rejection of the UN’s International Court rulings against the PRC is a watershed moment, not dissimilar to the League of Nations choice to ignore the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1934. As Emperor Haile Selassie I implied in his speech to the League then: “It is us today; it is you tomorrow.”

But that is just background to what the Trump Administration now faces with the PRC. While he may have to accept to some degree the PRC’s de facto position in the South China Sea, he does not have to accept the PRC’s concurrent projection of significant capability and presence in the Western Hemisphere, where it has made significant trade gains in South America, but profoundly important gains of an intelligence and dominance nature in the Caribbean and Central America.

This threatens the “third U.S. border”, and has all the hallmarks of a cyber-age version of the start of the Cuba Missile Crisis for the U.S. Significantly, this is one area where the Trump engagement with ROC President Tsai also has some relevance. Her trip, via the U.S. to Central America, immediately after her telephone call with Trump, was about supporting the ROC’s diplomatic partners in the region, and about resisting the PRC’s attempts to literally buy diplomatic recognition from some smaller regional states, such as Dominica, with significant ramifications for the PRC’s ability to project intelligence and other influence operations against the U.S. from the region.

This does not reflect the “normal” strategic or geopolitical/economic competition between the U.S. and the PRC in Africa, the Middle East, and even South America. But it would be difficult for the Trump Administration to allow “normalization” of the South China Sea situation (Beijing’s “natural” area of influence if the rights of South-East Asian states and Taiwan are ignored) on Beijing’s terms while allowing the profound escalation of PRC’s strategic penetration and attempted dominance of the Caribbean, a process which has gone unremarked until this time.

It is strategically axiomatic that the Trump White House cannot accept PRC manipulation in the Caribbean, and this may be a major area where President Xi may have to accept a rollback.

3. Recognize the PRC’s strengths and weaknesses: Neither the U.S. nor the PRC are ready for direct military (or even economic) confrontation. The relationship is, in many respects, a “balance of weaknesses”. Neither can it be construed as the classical “Thucydides Trap” matrix — where war is possible because of the dynamic interaction of a rising power versus a declining power — of which both sides are conscious.

Certainly, by traditional measures viewed in the short-term, the PRC’s military and economic capabilities are rising in qualitative and quantitative terms, while the U.S. capabilities had been declining. Even those metrics began to change with the election of the Trump Administration, so the margins of difference in the military equation may change less significantly than in the past decade.

Moreover, there is a significant question as to whether the PRC would be capable, within a decade or two, to assume a global projection role which would give it the guarantees of protection of its supply-chain architecture. But the real measure is whether the U.S., even with its massive debt burden (which it is assumed would be ameliorated through inflation and rising productivity), has greater economic-political resilience than the PRC over the coming decades. Or whether the PRC’s inherent problems of urbanization (and urban unrest and urban demands), coupled with the national shortage of viable water resources will create worsening social, economic, and political challenges which the present PRC governmental structure may be unable to address.

Viewed over the longer period, it would seem that the underlying structural problems facing the PRC Government and society over the coming two decades — particularly with regard to urban unrest and the overwhelming challenge of water problems on food production — could be more destabilizing than the challenges facing the Chinese Imperial Court when Dr Sun Yat-sen began his revolution against the authority of the Dowager Empress (or, nominally, Emperor Pu Yi) of the Great Qing dynasty in 1911-12.

In other words, can the U.S. “wait out” the PRC’s ostensible strategic rise? Or can the PRC transform the fundamentals to overcome the water- food challenges facing it? That is the most critical area of strategic study now facing the U.S. and, for that matter, the world. Clearly, in the short term, the PRC’s rise to becoming possible the world’s largest food importer exposes it to significant vulnerability, but it has little option.

The PRC government, almost a decade ago, acknowledged that 70 percent of its ground-water was polluted. Polluted ground-water, polluted food. Moreover, food and water requirements rise in direct proportion to rising wealth and urbanization, and the demand for high-water- content food (such as beef) adds even greater demand to the food chain. This will drive Beijing’s strategic policy, because absent any viable answers urban unrest will continue to rise, placing pressures on the central government for actions, which could include distracting foreign adventures.

Beijing’s perceived answer to this looming crisis has been to attempt to achieve dominant strategic status — and therefore a degree of immunity from global pressures — before the entire system runs out of capability. Few countries are watching this process more carefully than Japan, Russia, and the ROC.

4. Recognize the U.S.’ and its allies’ needs: Before any restoration of U.S.’ or its allies’ economic or military situations, the strategic imperative is for the U.S. to rebuild its global prestige. Any attempt to compete on military or economic terms becomes dramatically more expensive if it is not encapsulated in prestige dominance.

Beijing’s approach has been to increase its own prestige while undermining that of the U.S., a process in which former U.S. President Barack Obama was complicit. At present, the Trump Administration itself continues to suffer from the diminished prestige (and therefore perceptions of decreased strategic reliability) of the U.S. by its allies, particularly in the Indo- Pacific. The notable exception has been Japan, the Republic of China (ROC), and, to the degree that it is not diverted by domestic politics, the Republic of Korea.

Essentially, given the collapse of U.S. strategic credibility by failing — with its “pivot to Asia” — to stop the PRC’s construction of its Maginot Line in the Shallows of the South China Sea, the U.S. now needs to convince its erstwhile allies in the Indo- Pacific that it can safeguard their interests. The Trump Administration has yet to demonstrate how it intends to restore its leadership and support to its Indo-Pacific allies (other than Japan and the ROK), and, in any event, may not wish to show its hand before the Xi visit.

But the Trump Administration will need to reassure a number of its regional allies — particularly Australia-New Zealand, India, Vietnam, Singapore, and so on — as well as those in the Indo-Pacific chain up into the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. This will require more than a commitment to building the U.S. defense budget, but will require re-thinking doctrine, deployment, and alliance structures on a far more creative basis than in the past.

The PRC has done much to undermine U.S. alliance leadership, and Washington has abetted this process, given its failure to respond to the fact that the PRC had become the dominant trading partner of such critical U.S. military partners as Australia. If Australia, the U.S.’ most profoundly supportive ally ever, could question whether the U.S. is “the past” or “the future” should be a warning sign for the Trump Administration, even though Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull failed instinctively to understand the meaning of the global changes which impelled Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency.

Alliances in the future will look very different from the past paternalism of the U.S. in such treaty organizations as ANZUS, or NATO. It is insufficient for Washington to say that U.S. allies should spend more on defense; it is likely that the U.S. would need to encourage and inspire a return to sustainable, independent defense capabilities — freed from the economically impractical and logistically undesirable ties to U.S.-run defense systems programs — if it is to sufficiently revitalize the viability of its key alliances.
This will become more critical as U.S. allies (and others, such as Russia) become even more economically dependent on the PRC as a client, this time for foodstuffs.

5. Resist and overturn PRC attempts to eliminate the ROC’s position: The PRC, in its ongoing attempt to assert that “One China” must be the one China controlled by Beijing, has worked assiduously to ensure that the ROC be excluded from all international diplomatic recognition, and that the ROC be excluded from all international organizations. That is a logical and significant strategy for Beijing.

It is not a strategy which should be accepted by the U.S., and the Trump White House will need to be aware of this ongoing process to gain the most from the forthcoming Xi-Trump meetings.

Firstly, the U.S. is moving back to the realization (never abandoned by Beijing) that the age of geopolitics has returned, and the age of globalism as a governance philosophy had best be abandoned if the U.S. is to regain its strategic momentum. In the geopolitical framework, the U.S. needs to maintain the first island chain, which stretches from South-East Asia to Japan, to defend the U.S.’ and its allies’ positions in the Pacific. Central to this is the “permanent aircraft carrier” off the Chinese mainland: Taiwan. The PRC, for example, having removed the ROC from the United Nations and other bodies, now wishes to remove it from representation with in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Removing the ROC from ICAO would effectively allow the PRC to speak for the airspace utilization of the ROC, certainly as it applies to the management of ROC airlines and air transportation.

That would circumscribe the ROC to a degree which would be strategically disadvantageous to the U.S.

Diplomatically, the ability of the PRC to supplant the ROC as the diplomatic partner of some key Central American and Caribbean states has meant that Beijing has been able to enter into key security and intelligence arrangements which have strongly negative connotations for the U.S. Quite apart from the current PRC use of Dominica as a springboard of anti-U.S. activities, the PRC has worked assiduously to court other regional states for this process.

The PRC’s penetration of the Trinidad & Tobago Armed Forces and intelligence structures was profound during the tenure of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (until his resounding defeat in the September 7, 2015, elections). But President Xi used his leverage in the Caribbean during his June 2013 visit to make major strides with the Caribbean states, committing to $3-billion in investment and loans.

Given the changes in the regional narcotics production and trafficking, evidenced by the Colombia Peace Accord with Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) in 2016, it should be expected that the PRC’s involvement would both facilitate new patterns of narco-logistics into the U.S. and limit U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reach into the Caribbean.

As noted earlier: This is this something the U.S. cannot afford to ignore in its own backyard, particularly given the fact that Beijing has been complicit in using corruption to undermine the governance of many of the Caribbean states? And particularly as the PRC has resisted U.S. attempts to influence the South China Sea situation, citing China’s historical dominance of that region. U.S. facilitation of a reversal of this situation would encourage a return of several of the regional states to relations with the ROC rather than the PRC. That would benefit the U.S.

6. The DPRK Imperative: The consumer-led thinking on what the U.S. needs from the PRC heavily centers around the alleged requirement for Washington to rely on the PRC to control the DPRK (North Korea), perceived as increasingly important because of the DPRK’s demonstrable military nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.

This is a bargaining area in which the PRC is prepared to play with the U.S., largely because Beijing itself needs to control the DPRK for its own purposes. But the U.S. itself needs to put the DPRK threat into context, beginning with the recognition that the strategic containment processes employed for the past few decades against Pyongyang have all failed.

As a result, the White House should be cautious about energetically re-engaging with Beijing — to the point of placing itself under obligation to the PRC — on the DPRK issue unless it has a creative new strategy to deal with the challenge. In other words, Trump should be cautious about selling his soul to Beijing for a short-term fix, or a promise of PRC pressure on the DPRK, when — if past patterns are repeated — this would only mean possible short-term compliance.

It is not inconceivable that a more breathtaking approach to Pyongyang could be considered by the U.S., even given the fact that the PRC, the ROK, and Japan have all demonstrated a reluctance to do anything more with the DPRK than merely to repeat the failed attempts at strategic containment.

7. Understand the real state of the U.S.-PRC (and global) strategic balance: Understanding the grand strategic framework in which the U.S. and the PRC face themselves is key. Neither the U.S. nor the PRC grand strategy objectives have been defined, except that both now can be perceived to be in classical national terms of power dominance. Whatever that may mean within the emerging context. Essentially, few in the U.S. policy community have asked what it is that the PRC leadership — and people — actually want, although vague assumptions are made. The same could apply to the PRC’s perspective on what the U.S. wants.

For both states — the PRC for 70 years; the U.S. again since the inauguration of President Trump — the answer is heavily in the arenas of prestige and identity assurance. These may not be quantifiable objectives, but they are currently drivers.

How these strategic drivers are impacted by the changing global context, however, is the arena which requires a more sold comprehension of transforming population and social trends. U.S. and European recent elections have demonstrated the impact of the urban-regional psychological divide in populations. The movement of populations (urbanization and trans-national migration) therefore play a key role in the changing mentalities of societies. More importantly, the changing physical realities of societies drives the emotional and psychological reaction of societies which do not see themselves as the changing elements.

In the context of the coming Xi-Trump discussions, understanding this in the Chinese context may well determine how the long game is played by the participants.