Skip to main content

"I like rightists," Mao Zedong told Richard Nixon when they met during the former U.S. president's historic visit to Beijing in 1972. "People say you are rightists. … I am comparatively happy when these people on the right come into power."

Forty-five years later, Xi Jinping may have cast himself as the heir to Mao's cult of personality, and U.S. President Donald Trump may resemble Mr. Nixon in certain nefarious respects. But this is not 1972. Mr. Trump's visit to Beijing is not Mr. Nixon in China. It was not a careful negotiation between two powers to shape their mutual interests in the world – not, at least, on both sides of the table.

Mr. Xi has almost certainly concluded that he likes "rightists" very much, if they're rightists in the Donald Trump mould. Never in modern history has a democratic leader handed so much influence and authority to an autocrat, in exchange for so little. Mr. Trump has not simply ceded considerable power to Mr. Xi; he has also made it more difficult for other countries, including Canada, to shape their relations with China without compromising their values.

It was not simply Mr. Trump's unquestioning praise of Mr. Xi. "I very much look forward to meeting with President Xi who is just off his great political victory," Mr. Trump began his visit by declaring – that victory being Mr. Xi's assumption of another half-decade of unchallenged rule at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party. He then reversed his earlier, oft-repeated claim that China is out "to rape our country" economically, in "the greatest theft in the history of the world." Instead, he announced, "I don't blame China. … Who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country?"

Mr. Trump has turned the fraught and complex relationship with China into an all-or-nothing proposition. Previous U.S. presidents and Canadian prime ministers have not done a great job striking a balance with China between the need for more open and transparent business and trade relations, the demand for an end to abuses against dissidents and minorities and the need to keep peaceful relations across this volatile region. They've got the balance wrong, but at least they've recognized its existence.

Mr. Trump this week reduced the entire relationship to two questions: A demand that China bring nuclear-armed North Korea to heel on Washington's behalf and a desire for a "deal" that will make the U.S.-China trade relationship look better to U.S. voters – again, on Washington's behalf.

It is surprising how little Mr. Trump required in exchange for his wholesale endorsement of Beijing's authority. Mr. Xi delivered vague promises on North Korea that appear unlikely to go anywhere (the U.S. Congress unanimously passed a substantial set of sanctions against Pyongyang this week; that, not any Beijing deal, could make a difference). And he signed a set of business deals – in fact, he re-endorsed a set of non-binding memorandums of understanding that had previously existed – that won't affect the bottom line on trade.

This was all, it appears, in the interest of Mr. Trump being able to go home and tell his core supporters that he had "made a deal" with another superpower around the North Korean menace. It won't end North Korea's nuclear program (Beijing also disapproves of the nukes, but will not threaten Kim Jong-un so much that his country falls apart). Mr. Trump has not made a deal, he has given away his authority in Asia.

"Trump has mortgaged the whole U.S.-China relationship to get the Chinese on board with the North Korea plan," Mike Chinoy of the U.S-China Institute told reporters on Wednesday. "He is now coming at it from a position of weakness."

Second, Mr. Trump has all but ensured that China will be the only country with influence over the region. Previous U.S. administrations had attempted to defuse Beijing's regional power by striking important political and economic deals with other Asian countries.

This week at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit, those countries struggled to rescue the Trans-Pacific Partnership, rendered flaccid after Mr. Trump withdrew from the trade deal this year; it was a minor deal for the United States and Canada, but a huge opportunity for Vietnam, Malaysia and their neighbours, for whom it was a major chance to escape Beijing's near-monopoly on trade and investment. China is now the only country offering them a decent deal, and they'll all likely sign on.

Likewise, Mr. Trump told the South Koreans that they could have a more robust missile program, but that their well-established free-trade agreement with the United States, as with NAFTA, remains in jeopardy. South Korea, he made it clear, exists only as part of the North Korea problem.

This sequence of cold shoulders has sent a message across the region: For Mr. Trump, the only Asian deal that matters is the one that makes Xi Jinping happy.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe