President Donald Trump on Tuesday said his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping has frayed in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic and that he has not spoken to his Chinese counterpart in a long time.
“I used to have a very good relationship with him,” Trump told Fox Sports Radio in an interview, citing their Phase One trade deal hammered out last year and signed in early 2020. “I had a great relationship with President Xi. I like him, but I don’t feel the same way now.”
Trump said his feelings changed amid COVID-19.
“I certainly feel differently. I had a very, very good relationship, and I haven’t spoken to him in a long time.”
Trump, who is seeking re-election in the Nov. 3 U.S. election, made challenging China a key part of his 2016 presidential campaign and touted his friendly ties with Xi during much of his first term in office as he sought to make good on his trade deal promises.
But he said on Tuesday that the fallout from the outbreak was worse than the conflict over trade. “This is a thousand times the trade deal what happened with all of the death and … the world had to shut down. It’s a disgrace,” he told Fox.
Latest Remarks on China by President Trump in Press Briefing, August 10
THE PRESIDENT: We want to discuss, if we might, the China virus. And the world continues its fight against this horrible plague.
Nearly half of all of the deaths from the China virus in the United States have occurred in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
So that’s an important — we have fewer deaths per capita than the United Kingdom and most other nations in Western Europe, and heading for even stronger numbers.
But one person is too much, as far as I’m concerned. It should have never been allowed to happen. It should have never been allowed to escape China.
We must stop politicizing the virus and instead be united in our condemnation of how this virus came to America, how this virus came to the world. And we’re going to figure it out, and we’re going to find out, and we’re very angry about it.
Also, in unemployment benefits and to extend the freeze on home evictions — we want to extend the freeze so people aren’t evicted. It’s not their fault that the virus came from China. It’s China’s fault.
(Q Thank you, sir. Can you give us an update on China? Do you think that your administration will respond to the sanctions that China announced this morning on American officials?)
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we’ve already responded in many different ways. We’re — we’re talking a lot about China. We shouldn’t have been talking about China. We did a phase one deal, and it was a wonderful deal. And all of a sudden, it means very little in the overall import of things.
They should have never allowed what happened to the world, including us. But this was released into Europe and it was released into the U.S. and it was released all throughout the world, but it wasn’t released into China.
And we were doing numbers that will — you know, just were incredible. And we hope to be able to do them, perhaps, even next year. I think we’re going have an incredible year next year. But that will never pay for the loss of life in our country and all over the world.
So, we are — we view China differently than we did eight months ago. Very much differently.
The Reckoning: Donald Trump and Xi Jinping
During August of each year, tradition has it that the leading members of China’s CCP and its Politburo – including members of the Politburo Standing Committee – take a two-week holiday retreat at Beidahe, a coastal resort. The word “holiday” may be a misnomer, as this year’s retreat holds immense challenges for the CCP and China’s leader, President Xi Jinping.
While Xi and the CCP remain exquisitely opaque and secretive, recent trends in the China-US relationship, and its future, as well as his future beyond 2022, will likely be topics of discussion. Both the CCP and its leadership cannot help but reflect on the now-damaged relationship between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, and what might have gone wrong since 2017.
In the 1950s, America tore apart its political fabric during McCarthyism, as purges throughout its national security infrastructure railed, “who lost China?” So how ironic that today a rising, increasingly powerful China should have an analogous discussion (albeit in secret) of, “who lost America?” To answer this question, both American and Chinese observers would be wise to examine the personal relationship and leadership styles of Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. This is a tale of larger-than-life personalities, power, and grand ambitions, and of where their relationship went astray.
When President Xi hosted President Trump in a historic state visit to the Forbidden City in November 2017, he must have felt flush with success. President Xi had earlier supported President Trump’s push for stricter – the toughest ever – UN sanctions against North Korea in late 2017, following the DPRK’s increased nuclear testing. Surely President Xi – the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao and Deng – saw in President Trump a different kind of American leader, more transactional, and one whom the Chinese could do business. President Trump was, after all, a highly successful businessman, who prided himself on his abilities to make any deal, even under the most challenging of circumstances.
The Chinese and Xi appealed to President Trump’s vanity, feting him in the Forbidden City, and allowing him and First Lady Melania Trump to experience the finest aspects of Chinese history and culture. President Xi must have felt heady, following his bravura summit performance. And his confidence radiated throughout the highest levels of the Politburo. In a culture that prides itself on nuance, subtlety, and on diplomatic relationships, the Chinese felt that they had taken the measure of President Trump, who often referred to President Xi as his friend and who refrained from criticizing President Xi’s appalling human rights record in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
But President Xi and the CCP must now realize how devastatingly wrong they were. Like many observers (including pundits in America), they seriously underestimated President Trump, as well as the emerging, powerful bipartisan support for President Trump’s tougher policies regarding China. The Chinese, seeing him as purely transactional – a view which Trump did little to discourage – missed his ideological fervor and not only his desire to “make America great again” – but they failed to see that Xi’s “Chinese Dream of Rejuvenation” would brutally collide with President Trump’s vision of American greatness and its much-heralded exceptionalism. Xi and the Chinese, like so many others, perhaps overly-focused on the daily barrage of President Trump’s tweets, missed his larger vision and broader appeal of “America First,” which left little room for a rising China. Like many other leaders, President Xi and the CCP may have also seen President Trump as weakened by low poll numbers, a divided political fabric, and more recently, by his impeachment hearing, the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial tensions following the death of George Floyd, and the battered US economy, with its recent worst quarterly performance in history.
President Xi’s personal tale of ambition, resilience, power, and political gifts may have left him with a blind spot, which allowed him to misunderstand President Trump. It is easy for outside observers to note President Trump’s weaknesses. But merely doing so carries risk, as they may also miss his resilience, doggedness, political instincts, and ideological fervor, in the case of a triumphalist, hegemonic China. For President Trump has long railed against China’s imperial overreach, with its unfair trade practices, intellectual property theft, lack of Internet freedom, absence of rule of law (in Hong Kong and Xinjiang), espionage, military ambitions (e.g. expansion in the South China Sea), and economic largesse (e.g. Belt and Road Initiative). And with the advent of COVID-19 – which began in Wuhan, China – and its tragic damage to the world’s health, political, economic, and social fabric, the seeds for a new Cold War emerged in early 2020.
Such a sea change – upending 48 years of American foreign policy since President Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972 – could only happen with President Trump’s blessing. The intellectual seeds of such a change had been planted much earlier, as in Vice President Mike Pence’s 2019 speech at the Hudson Institute (e.g. the 21st-century’s version of the Hoover Institution during the Cold War) and in America’s 2020 National Security Strategy, which highlights China as the leading threat to the United States. This had been followed by recent policy speeches by FBI Director Christopher Wray, Attorney General William Barr, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the closure of China’s Houston consulate due to allegations of espionage. For the Chinese leadership, the fact that Secretary Pompeo’s speech took place at the Nixon Library could only add insult to injury.
Many have heralded the onset of a new Cold War between China and America, as both powers contend for leadership in a multi-polar world. This [hybrid] Cold War will be fought in many domains —political, economic, cyber, influence, public relations, military, espionage, and trade. While President Trump has de-emphasized soft power per se, and while Xi’s previous soft power successes have dimmed significantly, that variable will be key as well. While articulating America’s exceptionalism and appeal, President Trump has emphasized – both ideologically and strategically – that an aggressive, hostile, and bullying China is now a threat. What many have also missed over the past three years is President Trump’s closeness to India and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his view – expanding upon the strategic policies of former Presidents Bush and Obama – of the key, strategic role played by India as a counterweight to China. In this scenario, America’s earlier ‘pivot to Asia’ has evolved into a pivot to south Asia.
Coronavirus has already shaped President Xi’s, President Trump’s, and the rest of the world’s response to this pandemic at the dawn of a new Cold War. But it’s also a reckoning of sorts. It has now changed not only the strategic relationship between China and the US, but also forced President Xi and the CCP leadership to re-examine their views of President Trump, and how much they got wrong. President Xi, a devotee of Chinese classics, would do well to re-read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. This classic, more than Trump’s own The Art of the Deal, would do more to help him and the CCP leadership understand President Trump, a different sort of adversary, and it, along with Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, would further help them understand America’s resilience, exceptionalism, and greatness. For Xi and the Chinese leadership missed that enduring aspect as well — regardless of who becomes America’s next President in January 2021.
By Kenneth Dekleva
Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Director, Psychiatry-Medicine Integration, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX.