Wooing Donald Trump, Xi Jinping seeks great power status for China

A file photo of US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) shake hands prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 8, 2017.
A file photo of US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) shake hands prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 8, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - Chinese leaders have long sought to present themselves as equals to American presidents. Xi Jinping has wanted something more: a special relationship that sets China apart, as the other great power in an emerging bipolar world.

The Obama administration declined to play along, worried that it implied an American retreat from Asia. But Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, may find a more willing partner in President Donald Trump, who is travelling to Beijing on Wednesday (Nov 8) after stops in Japan and South Korea.

Trump has often cast China as an unfair trade rival, and, after arriving in Japan on Sunday, he vowed to build a "free and open Indo-Pacific," a phrase designed to emphasize America's democratic allies in the region as a balance against China's rise.

But Trump has also spoken of China in almost reverential terms and elevated Beijing as a critical player to resolving the North Korean nuclear standoff. And there are signs of mutual admiration between the two leaders - one a Communist Party princeling, the other a brash wheeler-dealer - both of whom see themselves as destined to restore their nations to greatness.

"The outcome of this clash of national ambitions will be one of the great, perhaps perilous stories of the next several decades," said David Lampton, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Trump piled on the flattery last month, congratulating Xi after he was anointed to a second term as Communist Party leader. "Now some people might call him the king," Trump told Lou Dobbs on Fox Business Network. "I happen to think he's a very good person."

China plans to return the favour when Trump arrives on Wednesday for what the Chinese Foreign Ministry says is his first visit to Beijing. The Chinese are calling it "a state visit-plus," promising grand pageantry in the Great Hall of the People and the ancient roofed pavilions of the Forbidden City.

The welcome is designed to make Trump feel important, reflecting the belief of at least some Chinese officials that they know just how to handle an outspoken tycoon with a big ego.

But the pomp will also be a chance for Xi to showcase his "China Dream" - a vision of his nation joining or perhaps supplanting the United States as a superpower leading the world.

Xi is expected to propose some version of what he has called a "new type of great power relations," the idea that China and the United States should share global leadership as equals and break a historical pattern of conflict between rising and established powers.

The concept is closely associated with Xi, who has been pitching it since he was vice president. But the Obama administration viewed it as code for allowing China to establish a sphere of influence in Asia, with the United States withdrawing to minimize conflict.

The Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, told state news media last week he hoped Trump's visit would revive the idea and allow the two nations to build a "constructive partnership."

Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang said the two leaders would discuss a "blueprint" for developing relations.

Chinese analysts believe the timing works to Xi's advantage. Trump will be arriving as he faces new questions about the Russia investigation at home and criticism abroad for appearing to abandon US leadership on issues from climate change to trade liberalisation.

In contrast, Xi has been basking in the aftermath of a party congress last month that elevated him to the same status as the nation's founding father, Mao Zedong.

Since Trump took office, Xi has positioned China as a stable alternative to the United States, willing to take on the obligations of global leadership and invest in big infrastructure projects across Asia and Europe much as the United States did after World War II.

"China, for the first time, is not in a humble position regarding the United States," said Yan Xuetong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "Usually the American president has the advantage. This is the first time there is an equal relationship between the two leaders."

Xi is now the unquestioned paramount leader of China, Yan added, while Trump only "represents himself."

Asked on Sunday about the disparity, Trump denied being at a disadvantage, citing stock market gains and low unemployment in the United States. "We are coming off some of the strongest numbers we've ever had, and he knows that and he respects that," Trump said of the Chinese president. "We're going in with tremendous strength."

Xi may also be counting on personal chemistry between the two men. They appeared to bond when they first met at Trump's Florida estate in April, and Trump has since called Xi numerous times, often to ask him to get tougher on North Korea.

In interviews, Trump has frequently praised Xi and described him as a friend, often in effusive terms unusual for an American president speaking of the leader of China's authoritarian, one-party state. At times, Trump has even repeated points made by Xi in their conversations.

Still, Chinese officials, known for their attention to detail and protocol when hosting foreign dignitaries, appear to be somewhat on edge over what Trump might say, and how he might say it, during the visit.

Twitter is blocked in China, but it is generally accessible on foreign cellphones. "How President Trump communicates with the outside - this is not something you need to worry about," said Zheng, the vice minister, when asked if the American president would be able to use his favourite social media platform.

Beijing's anxieties about the visit are due at least in part to uncertainty about the Trump administration's view of China.

Trump's call to build a "free and open Indo-Pacific" emphasising Australia, India and Japan echoes the view of the national security establishment in Washington that China's growing clout in Asia must be managed or even contained.

But Trump has also embraced those who say the United States must take a much tougher position on trade with China, including Stephen Bannon, the former White House strategist. They say that Beijing is exploiting America's openness while keeping its own markets closed, and Washington must insist on reciprocity even at the risk of a trade war.

Trump's top concern is expected to be North Korea and its nuclear arsenal, and many analysts believe Xi will use the potential for greater Chinese pressure on North Korea to draw Trump closer to embracing a "great power" relationship.

"As Trump needs Xi's help with the North Korean challenge and as he is not a traditional realist, he may agree, to the chagrin of his advisers," said Zhang Baohui, a professor of international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.