For the first time, the international community ought to be grateful to United States President Donald Trump for his extensive use of Twitter.
It had seemed an irritating habit of his to upturn the established culture, staid sobriety and the hallowed formalism of international diplomacy. Trump appeared at times to behave like a bull in a China shop.
However, the fact of the matter is that we get to sense far more out of Trump’s tweets about the hugely consequential meeting he had with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week in Florida than all the media reports and expert opinion put together.
The fog is lifting day by day. What has surfaced (so far) is a potential “win-win” deal between Trump and Xi, based on a balancing of interests of the two countries over the two main contentious issues in the relationship of pressing concern – North Korea problem and trade and investment issues.
April 11 was an eventful day. Trump tweeted twice on that day, following up on his conversations with Xi in Florida. He noted:
Four minutes later, he added:
Succinctly put, Trump sought to reaffirm to Xi that he’d keep his word that the latter would indeed get a good trade deal if only China helped solve America’s problem with North Korea. He thereupon added that at the very least, he’d expect China to simply remain passive while he gets a free hand to tackle the intransigent folks in North Korea.
Within the day, Xi was dialling up Trump. While the Chinese account made it out to be a wide-ranging exchange, Trump disclosed that it was a focused discussion:
Trump then went on to give an interview to The Wall Street Journal, which is absolutely stunning – US no longer considers China as “currency manipulator”.
Trump has had a major rethink. He now thinks the problem is not that Chinese currency is deliberately kept “weak” but that the American dollar happens to be “strong”. The Chinese Communist Party veterans must be marvelling at Trump’s dialectical mind.
By the way, a US Treasury spokesman has separately confirmed also that the Treasury Department’s semi-annual report on currency practices of major trading partners, due out later this week, will not name China currency manipulator. This is a huge gesture by Trump, because he is literally backing away from a campaign promise.
Trump further told the The Wall Street Journal that the reason he changed his mind was partly because taking the step now could jeopardize his talks with Beijing on confronting the threat from North Korea.
Under US laws, if the Federal Reserve were to label China as currency manipulator, it would automatically trigger a deep investigation on tariffs and trade. In short, within a day of the “very good call” from Xi, Trump announced a spectacular concession.
The pundits have been arguing that the best way to pressure the Chinese to be cooperative on North Korea would be by squeezing them on trade issues, but Trump takes the contrarian approach – a “win-win” deal.
If one were to look at Chinese commentaries, Beijing is already looking away from Trump’s move to dispatch a strike group of the US Navy to North Korea. The focus has shifted.
It is now on putting pressure on North Korea, threatening Pyongyang that Beijing will be in a punishing mood if it conducted any more nuclear or missile tests, even stopping oil supplies.
Of course, Chinese commentaries keep advising Trump to carefully factor in the inherent dangers of provoking North Korea, but, importantly, Beijing has quietly abandoned the earlier strident stance that any US attack on North Korea will be simply unacceptable and will prompt strong Chinese reaction.
New Delhi needs to watch this shadow play very, very carefully. Even a lighter version of Chinamerica would profoundly impact India’s interests. If there could be a Faustian deal between the US and China regarding North Korea, with the Sino-American trade and investment issues forming a key template, what prevents Trump and Xi from applying similar market instincts to other regional and international issues?
Indeed, according to a White House pool report on Wednesday, a senior Trump official has been quoted as saying that China’s abstention on Wednesday in the UN Security Council vote on a draft resolution on Syria sponsored by the western powers – in a major departure from its vetoing of similar attempts in the past to pillory Damascus – is due to the “important relationship” forged between Trump and Xi.
The White House is openly celebrating that China has edged away from its previous solidarity with Russia regarding Syria.
At a juncture when India’s relations with China have sharply deteriorated, how far will Trump act in the spirit of the “defining partnership of the 21st century” to be supportive of Indian interests if push comes to shove is the big question. We need to ponder over the question very seriously.
The Chinese Foreign Office spokesman threatened Delhi on Wednesday with “further steps to preserve our territorial integrity and national security”. Last week, the government-owned China Daily newspaper editorially commented: “If New Delhi chooses to play dirty (over Tibet issue)… Beijing should not hesitate to answer blows with blows.”
Alas, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is yet to get an appointment with Trump, while the latter is already planning his next structured summit meeting with Xi to be held in China. We are mere sidekicks, aren’t we? We should stop pretending otherwise.