Xi Jinping must be one charming guy. Ever since Donald Trump met with the Chinese president at Mar-a-Lago this month—a meeting that Trump predicted would be “very difficult” because of disputes over trade and North Korea—our president has used nearly every recent interview to talk up his great rapport with Xi.
Trump told the Wall Street Journal, “We had just a very good chemistry,” sounding almost moonstruck as he recalled how a meeting that was supposed to have lasted 10 minutes went on for three hours.
“President Xi, we have a, like, a really great relationship,” he told the AP this week.
Explaining to Politico that his presidency was, in fact, on track at the 100-day mark, he cited as evidence that, “I have a terrific relationship with Xi.”
In a new interview with Reuters, he says of a man he met less than a month ago, “He is a good man. He is a very good man and I got to know him very well” and that “he loves China and he loves the people of China.”
There’s nothing wrong with the world’s two most powerful leaders getting along. It’s much better than the alternative. But it is concerning that Trump seems to suggest in these interviews that he’s basing his policy positions and worldview on his conversations with Xi, a man who—nice as he may be to talk to—is still the leader of a geopolitical rival who may not always have America’s best interests at heart.
Take the issue of currency manipulation. Trump spent most of his campaign bashing China for unfairly devaluing its currency to gain a trade advantage. He has now changed his tune, not because China hasn’t been devaluing its currency for some time, but because, as he told the AP, he has developed a great relationship with Xi, so “[f]or me to call him a currency manipulator and then say, ‘By the way, I’d like you to solve the North Korean problem,’ doesn’t work.”
As for North Korea, Trump once believed that China had “total control” over the Kim regime and was tweeting as recently as last month that China has “done little to help!” in deterring the country’s nuclear program. But, he told the Wall Street Journal, after listening to Xi for just 10 minutes, he realized it was “not so easy” and that China’s leverage was actually limited. Again, this isn’t wrong, but as my colleague Fred Kaplan recently pointed out, the president of China is not the ideal messenger for that revelation.
Trump now says, in regard to Xi and North Korea, “I really feel that he is doing everything in his power to help us with a big situation.” He was also very impressed by China turning away shipments of North Korean coal to put pressure on the regime. “Look, he turned down many coal ships. These massive coal ships are coming where they get a lot of their income. They’re coming into China and they’re being turned away. That’s never happened before,” Trump told the AP. Actually, China has cracked down on trade with North Korea before, even turning away ships.
Trump also addressed Taiwan in the new Reuters interview. During the transition period, Trump had broken precedent by taking a phone call from the president of Taiwan and publicly suggested he might abandon the longstanding “one-China policy” recognizing Chinese sovereignty over the island. But Trump backed down from that stance in February after just one phone call with Xi. Now, he has rebuffed another request from the Taiwanese president for a phone call and tells Reuters that it’s because of his good relationship with Xi and the help China is providing on North Korea: “I wouldn’t want to be causing difficulty right now for him. So I would certainly want to speak to him first.”
It’s also concerning that Trump seems to be getting Asian history lessons from Xi. Trump told the Wall Street Journal that the Chinese president had told him that “Korea actually used to be a part of China”—a contentious claim disputed by Koreans and most historians that caused outrage when it was reported in the South Korean press. What will Xi educate Trump on next? That the Dalai Lama is a terrorist? That the South China Sea is historically part of China? We can only hope it’s that climate change is real.
Trump’s embrace of Xi’s worldview is likely confusing and alarming for Asian governments that have counted on the U.S. to counteract China’s growing influence.
Xi will no doubt be happy to read in the Reuters interview that Trump wants South Korea to pay for the Chinese-opposed missile defense system the U.S. is installing and that he plans to “renegotiate or terminate a U.S. free trade pact with South Korea” very soon. This has caused yet another uproar in South Korea, the country with the most to lose from Trump’s belligerence toward the North. Trump has already scuttled the Chinese-opposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. If he starts unilaterally scrapping trade and defense agreements with longtime U.S. allies, it’s going to make Xi’s life a lot easier.
It’s also interesting to note that Trump’s embrace of Xi comes as U.S.-Russia relations have soured. Trump’s remarks about Xi in the past few weeks actually go well beyond the controversial affinity toward Vladimir Putin that Trump displayed during his campaign. Perhaps we’ve been worried about the wrong foreign strongman pulling Trump’s strings.