The tiger that didn't purr: For Xi Jinping, it's not personal, it's just business

The tiger that didn't purr: For Xi Jinping, it's not personal, it's just business
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President Donald Trump takes pride in his ability to charm and cajole competitors, skills he honed as a private real estate developer and that he now applies to international trade and security negotiations.

He believes the appeal of his personality and the amicable relations he has cultivated with America’s two most dangerous adversaries, China and North Korea, have already reaped dividends, while acknowledging the continuing need to overcome decades of failed policies.

So far, he has certainly gotten the receptive attention of both Xi Jinping and Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnUS proposed helping North Korea build tourist area amid nuclear talks: report Kim poses for photos on white horse on sacred mountain, plans 'great operation' Beware the 34th month of Trump's presidency MORE, but that is more likely because of the mailed fist he revealed under the velvet glove.  

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For Pyongyang, that was the three-part “maximum pressure” campaign over denuclearization — economic sanctions, believable saber-rattling and overt challenges to regime legitimacy. For Beijing, it was the spinoff credibility Trump initially earned with his steely approach to North Korea, along with the secondary sanctions on China for undermining those against Pyongyang, and the trade war he defiantly launched against China.

Nevertheless, the president persists in claiming success in his man-to-man friendship with Xi and Kim. Some observers recall the unquenchable optimism of President Obama’s lead official on Asian affairs who seemed incapable of referring to Beijing’s communist officials as anything other than “our Chinese friends.”

Like the Obama team, Trump fails to note that the personal warmth is not reciprocated. Xi never calls the U.S. president a friend or expresses any admiration for his leadership qualities. (Kim, according to the president, does send occasional “love letters” but their content remains secret.)

But the Chinese do transmit flattering messages to Trump through useful emissaries. Michael Pillsbury, an outside adviser with close ties to both the White House and Chinese officials, told a C-span audience that China’s leaders are impressed with Trump’s “big brain.” A professed former “panda hugger,” then a supposed “realist” on China, Pillsbury has become a born-again panda-whisperer to the president. He urges Trump to abandon his earlier approach, the stronger policies favored by militaristic “super hawks” such as former national security adviser John Bolton.

Most recently, he praised Trump’s warm congratulations to Xi on the occasion of Beijing’s military parade extravaganza celebrating 70 years of Communist Party dictatorship — even as it was cracking down on mostly peaceful protestors in Hong Kong. In response to critics, Pillsbury explained that the president’s message was intended to maintain his personal relationship with Xi while confronting China on trade. He said Trump “does not want to start a Cold War with China or seek to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party.” 

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To further demonstrate his good intentions, the president told Xi in a June 18 phone call he would remain quiet on Hong Kong if trade talks progressed. When members of both parties questioned the propriety of the statement, Trump injected a measure of moral concern and said he hoped Xi would “do the right thing” on Hong Kong.

In his subsequent speech at the United Nations, the president made a more fulsome human rights appeal: “The world fully expects that the Chinese government will … protect Hong Kong’s freedom, legal system and democratic ways of life.” 

He said Xi’s international prestige is on the line: “How China chooses to handle this situation will say a great deal about its role in the world in the future. We are all counting on President Xi as a great leader.” 

Xi, not impressed by the preemptive compliments, gave his answer in remarks on Oct. 1: “Unity is iron and steel; unity is a source of strength.” 

Referring explicitly to both Hong Kong and Taiwan, he declared: “The complete reunification of the motherland is an inevitable trend; it is what the greater national interests entail and what all Chinese people aspire for. No one and no force can ever stop it!” (Beijing’s exclamation point.)

Xi has skillfully played off one issue against another in the multi-dimensional U.S.-China relationship, always in the cause of advancing Beijing’s core interests and long-term ambitions.  As this article was nearing completion, the already complex dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship suddenly became even more complicated and Xi was given a new card to play to America’s disadvantage.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE publicly asked the Chinese communists to unearth damaging information on his political opponent, former vice president Joe Biden. Xi, after all, has proven adept at discovering, or manufacturing, evidence of corruption to destroy his own political enemies.  

In his remarks, Trump also mentioned the next phase of trade talks: “The Chinese are coming in next week. … I have a lot of options on China. But if they don’t do what we want, I have tremendous, tremendous power.” His warning about linkage and consequences seemed clearly to apply to the trade issues, not to American domestic politics. 

But it has been reported that in the same June conversation with Xi where he promised to tread lightly on Hong Kong, he also did make a partisan political appeal. Given that background, reporters asked whether a possible China corruption investigation would influence the trade talks. The president said, “One thing has nothing to do with the other.” 

But the seed has been planted. It would be unfortunate if Xi and his colleagues believe they now have new leverage and less need to be cooperative, not only on trade but also on the range of security and human rights issues in contention with the United States. If China’s leaders, mistakenly or not, sense that kind of opening, they could harden their stance on Hong Kong, Taiwan, South China Sea, the Uighurs and other issues.

Paradoxically, it could work the other way as well. Trump, aware of the suggestion of linkage and vulnerability his comment has created, may well adopt an even firmer posture on one or more issues with China, including North Korea.  

For an American president, addressing the human rights nightmares in both countries would constitute an important values act in its own right. But it also would serve as a non-kinetic way of restoring the progress his maximum pressure campaign was on the verge of making — and still could make — in the critical area of national, regional and global security.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and is a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.