For those who have paid attention to then-candidate, then-president-elect, then-President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on China, the change could not have been more dramatic.
In 2015, candidate Trump referred to China as an enemy, saying “they have destroyed entire industries by utilizing low-wage workers; cost us tens of thousands of jobs, spied on our businesses, stolen our technology . . .
“We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world,” he told his audience at a campaign rally in May of 2016.
Last April however, coming out of his first meeting with President Xi Jingping of China at Mar-a-Lago, Trump surprisingly touted “great chemistry” with Xi. And later during his visit to Beijing in November, he appeared so flattered by the “red carpet like nobody I think has probably ever seen” that when it came to the “very unfair and one-sided” trade relationship, the president went so far as saying: “I don’t blame China, after all, who can blame a country for taking advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?”
To many observers, such sea change in a matter of less than a year is puzzling.
Though not totally news to the world, the new book by Michael Wolff, “Fire and Fury,” appears to shed more light on the driving forces behind Trump’s change of attitude, through exposing the competition of the two factions in the West Wing. On one side, his family, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner; the other side, Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist and “the only person to date to conduct a global effort to preach the message of Trump and Trumpism.”
According to the book, Bannon at one point was telling Roger Ailes, former Fox News CEO, that “China is where Nazi Germany was in 1929 to 1930.” More conspicuously, Bannon’s White House agenda was topped by starting an “all-encompassing war” with China, “commercial war, trade war, cultural war, diplomatic war that few in the United States now understood needed to be fought, and that almost nobody was prepared to fight.”
The book portrays Bannon as a diehard “China hawk” who views China as a dangerous threat that challenges America’s geopolitical and economic interest around the world, from the perspectives of a nationalist or white-nationalist, not as much from the angle of defending American values.
The book reaffirms the belief that the “Jarvanka couple,” as dubbed by Bannon, has been playing the role of “China doves” inside the Trump White House. They see strategic values in closer ties with China, which also is in line with their own business interest. And like the Bannon camp, they too showed little interest in promoting Americas values. Kushner sought a deal with the Chinese financial colossus, the Anbang Insurance Group, to refinance the family’s large debt in one of its major real estate holdings — 666 Fifth Avenue in New York City. Their family held seminars in China trying to lure Chinese investors with the promise of US visas. They asked Henry Kissinger to help arrange a meeting with the Chinese president and charmed the Chinese guests with performance of their Mandarin-speaking 5-year-old daughter.
The shift of power balance between the Bannon and the Kushner factions in the White House may to a certain extent explain Trump’s sudden change of heart. With Bannon falling out of favor with Trump, in the foreseeable future the White House is more likely to continue the less confrontational China policy.
It is clear that in the Trump Administration, neither hawks like Bannon nor doves like the Kushners are interested in challenging Beijing on value issues, in distinct contrast to most previous administrations. While more cooperative in international affairs, Hilary Clinton’s State Department under President Barack Obama was seen as promoting traditional American values worldwide, which to most authoritarian regimes is a worse offense than hardline trade policies. Hillary Clinton was perceived as a “hawk on the left,” often openly confronting Beijing on human rights issues. Barack Obama on the other hand was viewed as a “dove on the left,” who was not ideologically hostile toward China’s rise while still campaigning for universal values.
This might explain Beijing’s thinly-veiled preference during the 2016 US election toward the unconventional Republican candidate: Prominent figures in the Trump camp, doves or hawks, had shown little faith in the idealistic side of the American tradition themselves and were much less likely to interfere in what Beijing sees as its internal affairs.
There is a description in “Fire and Fury” that may best illustrate what Trump calls the “great chemistry” between the presidents of the two nations: Since taking office, the president has been developing an intuitive national security view — keep as many despots who might otherwise crush you as happy as possible. A self-styled strongman, he is also a fundamental appeaser.
Audrey Jiajia Li is the 2017-’18 Elizabeth Neuffer fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation. She is currently in residence at the MIT Centre for International Studies.