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Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist

How will Xi Jinping handle a U.S. President without a China policy? Add to ...

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

The meeting between Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, was announced barely a week before it was to be held, suggesting difficult problems ahead. Almost simultaneously, Mr. Trump tweeted, “The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one.”

Indeed, the difficulties are likely to be much greater than the U.S. President expects. Mr. Trump has zero experience in government, in diplomacy or in the military. He has no overall global policy and no Asia regional policy into which to fit a China policy.

Read also: Globe editorial: Canada’s opportunity in China, and its dangers

His foreign-policy team is not in place. Aside from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the upper ranks of the State Department remain unfilled. The one person with experience whom Mr. Tillerson wanted as his deputy, Elliott Abrams, was rejected because he had once criticized Mr. Trump.

Each administration has a point man on China policy. In the last administration it was Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. That position is now vacant. For the time being, the point man seems to be Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, who also handles Middle Eastern policy.

On the Chinese side, Xi Jinping rose through the ranks, having been governor of Fujian province and party secretary of Zhejiang province and Shanghai before joining the central leadership a decade ago. While Mr. Trump has been in power for less than three months, Mr. Xi has ruled China for more than four years. His foreign-policy advisers are solid.

Mr. Trump wants to “make America great again,” while Mr. Xi talks about the “Chinese dream.” The Chinese dream involves “the great revival of the Chinese nation” and restoration of the country to a position of dominance, while Mr. Trump’s vision of America involves reduction of the country’s global role. The U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which accounted for 40 per cent of the world’s trade, created a vacuum into which China is moving.

Mr. Trump likes to depict himself as a solver of problems through deal making. He is boastful, saying he doesn’t need daily intelligence briefings because he is a “smart person.” But when dealing with China he can’t be too well prepared. He cannot be cavalier about the security of the country. This carefully conjured image of someone far superior to ordinary politicians has been badly tarnished since he assumed office, especially by his failure to repeal Obamacare.

Mr. Xi is, by contrast, a very careful person, not inclined to reveal his hand and not to speak until he is ready. China remained restrained despite Mr. Trump’s many rants before and after the election until Mr. Trump said he might not abide by the “one China” policy. Mr. Xi then made it clear that China would not do business with him, and Mr. Trump was forced to take back what he had said.

Some say it is too soon for Mr. Trump to meet the Chinese leader. However, Barack Obama met with the then Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, on April 1, 2009, also less than three months after assuming office. But his secretary of state was confirmed the day after his inauguration and his China experts were in place.

Mr. Trump in his tweet showed that he was most concerned with trade deficits and jobs. The U.S. trade figures with China are distorted and the deficit will be substantially cut by an agreement to calculate it according to the value-added method, which is internationally accepted. An increase in Chinese investment will create U.S. jobs, but the United States has always been cautious about the national-security implications of such investments, so this is a double-edged sword.

A key issue is North Korea. Mr. Trump is going to ask China to help resolve the problem of Pyongyang’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities. According to the Financial Times, Mr. Trump has promised to unilaterally “solve North Korea” if China doesn’t do it. The outcome of that discussion will be crucial.

Mr. Trump has no China policy to speak of except spur-of-the-moment tweets. During the campaign, he threatened to impose a 45-per-cent tariff on imports from China, and to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. Both turned out to be empty threats. No doubt, such behaviour helped Mr. Xi to take the measure of the man he is to meet on Thursday and Friday.

Speaking of the visit, what will Mr. Trump serve his dinner guests, the Chinese President and his wife, Peng Liyuan? When Mr. Xi visited the United States in 2015, Mr. Trump criticized Mr. Obama for giving him a state dinner and said, “I would get him a McDonald’s hamburger.”

Now is his chance.

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