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24 Nov 2020 11:46
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  •   Home > News > International

    How Donald Trump and Xi Jinping changed the US-China relationship forever

    The US President promised to reset his country's relationship with China, but four years later he still hasn't managed to get his "very good friend" to agree to the big new deal he's always wanted.

    When Donald Trump was living in his first Manhattan penthouse apartment, the future Chinese President, Xi Jinping, was living in a cave.

    At 15 years old, Mr Xi was sent to live in a mountain farming community, in a cave house.

    His father, Xi Zhongshun, a senior Communist Party official, slipped into Chairman Mao's bad books and was thrown in jail.

    By the time Mr Trump and Mr Xi met for the first time at Mar-a-Lago in 2017, they had taken very different routes to becoming the leaders of the world's two most powerful nations.

    And at the time, it seemed like the beginning of an unlikely friendship — the US President lauded Mr Xi.

    "President Xi is a terrific guy, I like being with him a lot, and he's a very special person," he said.

    It was a surprising change from his campaign trail promises to take on China.

    "We can't continue to allow China to rape our country," he said on the trail in 2016.

    "And that is what they're doing, it's the greatest theft in the history of the world."

    But behind this see-sawing in public rhetoric was a complex set of ideas driving both men, and they would go on to change the US-China relationship forever.

    How Martin Sheen got China into Donald Trump's head

    Since about 2011, Mr Trump has been convinced China is taking advantage of America.

    In a speech in 2012, he said the United States should tax Chinese imports and he gave the audience an impression of how he thought the message should be delivered.

    "Listen you mother*******, we're going to tax you 25 per cent," he said.

    He got that idea, mostly, from a documentary he saw that was narrated by actor Martin Sheen.

    During the opening scene of the film, a giant knife that is "made in China" stabs into a map of the United States and blood spurts out.

    "The film you're about to see addresses one of the most urgent problems facing America," says Mr Sheen, narrating the sequence.

    "It's increasingly destructive trade relationship with a rapidly rising China."

    This film was written, produced and directed by economics professor Peter Navarro, who ran for office multiple times as a progressive Democrat, before getting fixated on China.

    His view on China is essentially that you cannot buy anything from them at all, because anything that is good for China is inherently bad for America.

    Once Mr Trump started running for president, Professor Navarro joined his team and the two started to heat up the rhetoric.

    "We're like the piggy bank that is being robbed. We have the cards. We have a lot of power with China," he said at a campaign event.

    He began to see a new trade deal with China as not just desirable but crucial to the American economy, and when he entered the White House it was a great big deal that he wanted to get done.

    Xi Jinping would never be dictated to

    The President of China is still remembered in the mountain village of Liangjiahe.

    "Back then it was very poor around here; we had to eat leaves. He [Xi Jinping] was very skinny," a villager once told ITN news.

    Poverty in China was incredibly high back in the 1960s and 1970s and about 90 per cent of the population remained in poverty up until the 1990s.

    By the time Mr Xi ascended to leadership of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, the number of people living in poverty had halved, and the country was on its way to being the largest economy on Earth.

    A big reason for that was China opening up and making trade deals, which let foreign companies into the country and gave China access to lucrative foreign consumer markets.

    But Mr Trump has been right when he has said China does not abide by the rules of some of those trade deals.

    Other nations have long complained China has allowed intellectual property to be stolen by Chinese firms, and many have accused the Chinese Government of currency manipulation, which keeps its currency artificially low.

    But of all China's recent leaders, Mr Xi was probably the least likely to bend to this international pressure. He took China's scepticism of the liberal international order and went further; he wanted to confront it.

    As President, he wanted to enforce China's claim over the South China Sea, bring the autonomous territory of Hong Kong under greater control and even to accomplish the long-held Chinese goal of absorbing Taiwan.

    Mr Xi was not going to be dictated to on trade by a US president.

    The very special friendship

    The meeting at Mar-a-Lago was only a few months into Mr Trump's term in office and it coincided with the first time he really utilised the immense power at his fingertips as commander-in-chief.

    "We had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you've ever seen and President Xi was enjoying it and I was given the message from the generals that the ships are locked and loaded," Mr Trump told Fox Business's Maria Bartiromo.

    He had ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airbase after a gas attack on Syrian civilians.

    Midway through eating cake, Mr Trump took the opportunity to tell Mr Xi about what he had done.

    "I said, 'Mr President, let me explain something to you. We've just launched 59 missiles heading towards Syria,'" Mr Trump said.

    "He said to me, 'Anybody that was so brutal and uses gases to do that to young children and babies, it's OK [to strike against them].'"

    For the US President, this was a coup and he began bragging about the relationship publicly and privately.

    But others thought he was being worked, including his former national security adviser John Bolton.

    "If you watch, as I did on any number of occasions, Donald Trump on the opposite side of the table from Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un — it's not a fair fight," he said.

    "They are extraordinarily focused, hard headed, knowledgeable, experienced and thoroughly ruthless."

    Mr Xi left the Mar-a-Lago meeting with a belly full of chocolate cake and a clear realisation: Mr Trump was only after one thing from China, a trade deal.

    If that was dangled in front of him, who knew what China could get away with while he was distracted?

    From friendship to trade war

    Mr Trump seemed to support Mr Xi on every issue, even the altering of the Chinese constitution to abolish term limits.

    But even as the friendship was continuing publicly, Mr Trump was getting impatient about getting a trade deal done.

    So in 2018, the US administration followed through on Mr Trump's old threat and put a 25 per cent tax on a basket of Chinese imports.

    China responded with its own 25 per cent tariff on some American imports.

    Soon, the US put tariffs on more goods and the trade war between the two countries spiralled.

    Mr Trump was counting on these tariffs to force China to the bargaining table and to finally sign a new trade agreement.

    So in 2019, Mr Trump met Xi Jinping in Osaka, trying to get a deal done before election season began.

    Mr Bolton, who was then the national security advisor, was in the room with the two men.

    He has claimed the President told Mr Xi that his re-election hopes were pinned on the two reaching a deal.

    "Trump then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming US presidential election, alluding to China's economic capability and pleading with Xi to ensure he'd win," Mr Bolton wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

    "He stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome. "

    Mr Bolton claimed the President was willing to give ground on every major issue: Hong Kong autonomy, the rights of Uighurs in Xinjiang, anything that would get a deal done.

    How coronavirus changed everything

    When news of the virus began to spread, Mr Trump was convinced Mr Xi was being totally honest about the situation and would be able to handle it, according to Mr Bolton.

    "He didn't want to hear anything bad about China, he didn't want to hear anything bad about Xi Jinping, his buddy," he said.

    A truce in the trade war did arrive in January of this year but it was far from the grand new trade deal Mr Trump had long sought.

    China agreed to buy an extra $US200 billion of American goods and give US companies more access to China's markets, but the terms remain vague and it was described by Mr Trump only as the first 'phase' of dealing with the many problems he had with China's trade practices.

    If there was a chance for it to be the centrepiece of Mr Trump's re-election bid, the virus quickly knocked it off the agenda.

    On the day China announced a lockdown of Wuhan, Mr Trump publicly denied it was a serious problem.

    "It's going to be just fine," he said in an interview with CNBC.

    "I have a great relationship with President Xi."

    By the time Mr Trump announced he was going to cut off airline travel from China, the virus was already spreading in the United States.

    But it would take until more than 50,000 Americans had been killed by the virus before Mr Trump realised the trade deal would have to be put on ice.

    He began to call the virus the "Chinese flu".

    "We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world, China," he said.

    By the time Mr Trump returned to the campaign trail, gone was the praise for Mr Xi and gone was talk of an imminent new trade deal for the United States.

    But his turn against China was too little too late, even for some of his Republican colleagues, such as Senator for Nebraska Ben Sasse, who in a radio talkback segment with voters slammed the President's approach to China.

    "The way he kisses dictator's butts, I mean the way he ignores that the Uyghurs are in literal concentration camps in Xinjiang right now; he hasn't lifted a finger on behalf of the Hong Kongers," he said.

    "It isn't just that he fails to lead our allies, it's that we the United States now regularly sell out our allies under his leadership."

    Mr Trump promised to Make America Wealthy Again, and he tried to achieve that with a great new friendship with President Xi.

    But in fact, the trade imbalance has only gotten worse.

    And as China's economy emerges from draconian lockdowns and into an economic recovery, the United States remains beset by the virus.

    Today, America is not wealthier or stronger. China is.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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