There is an atmosphere of imperialism around China’s reception of Donald Trump, who is in Beijing as part of his 12-day tour of Asia. The president’s red-carpet treatment began with a tour of the Forbidden City, the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government for almost 500 years.
The venue is symbolic for more than its regal history; today it is more commonly known in Mandarin as the Former Palace, perhaps a reference to the impermanence of empires and global leadership. That Trump showed Chinese President Xi Jinping a video of his granddaughter singing in Mandarin gives credence to the increasing projection of Chinese soft power on the world stage.
Xi emerged from last month’s Communist party congress as China’s unchallenged leader. He broke with precedent and chose not to anoint a successor, leading some international commentators to describe him with an honorific typically reserved for the US president: the world’s most powerful man. Others are comparing Xi, in terms of his impact on the country, to paramount leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
Beijing matched Trump’s effusive language for China and for Xi, who he called ‘a very special man’. The Chinese administration billed the trip as a ‘state visit-plus’, emphasising the two leaders’ ‘personal relations’. The trip is a continuation of the strong working friendship which they began to forge in Florida in April, when three generations of Trump’s family met the Chinese premier. It was an important gesture to a culture where family is an important concept and can have an outsized impact on business and social order.
Unlike in Japan and South Korea, Trump will not face protests against his visit to China. In a country where, as Deng once said, ‘to get rich is glorious’, the Chinese are impressed by Trump’s wealth. After touting anti-China rhetoric during last year’s presidential campaign, Trump has since made clear that he blames his predecessors, not Beijing, for the trade imbalance. Though he will seek to secure China’s commitments to exert more pressure on North Korea, the focus for the visit will remain on the commercial events where $250bn worth of business deals will be signed.
Concerns remain about Xi’s commitment to significant financial reform, as Beijing appears likely to retain considerable central control over the economy. There are fears, too, concerning the authorities’ ability to manage China’s growing debt, which some statistics place at around 260% of GDP. However, with the world economy’s acceleration so far this year being stronger than forecast, the development of this ‘very special’ US-China relationship will further reinforce economic optimism, in spite of mounting geopolitical risk in Asia.
Adam Cotter is Head of Asia at OMFIF.