Asia weighs risk and reward in Trump's
'bromance' with China's Xi
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[April 28, 2017]
By Ben Blanchard and Philip Wen
BEIJING (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald
Trump's warm words for Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping as a "good man"
will reassure Beijing that he finally understands the importance of good
ties, but risks leaving America's regional allies puzzling over where
they fit into the new order.
The budding "bromance" between the two leaders appeared highly unlikely
when Trump was lambasting China on the campaign trail for stealing U.S.
jobs with unfair trade polices. In December, after winning office, he
upended protocol by taking a call from the president of self-ruled
Taiwan, which China regards as its own sacred territory.
A few months on, after meeting Xi at his Florida residence earlier in
April, Trump appears to have done a complete volte-face, praising Xi for
trying hard to rein in nuclear-armed North Korea and rebuffing Taiwan's
president's suggestion of another call.
Chinese officials will no doubt be pleased, said Jia Qingguo, a leading
academic who has advised the government on foreign policy.
"People will say that the only thing we know for sure about Donald
Trump's administration is uncertainty and unpredictability," said Jia,
dean of the School of International Studies at the elite Peking
"But judging from what he has been saying and doing, it's quite
reassuring as far as China is concerned. Certainly I think people have
developed more positive views about the Donald Trump administration here
and we have a lot of expectations that we can work together
For China's neighbors, it's a little more complicated.
On one level, a healthy relationship between the world's two biggest
economies suits everyone.
"It's hugely positive that there's been a reasonably constructive start
to the bilateral dialogue between those two countries," Tom Lembong,
Indonesia's investment chief and close aide to President Joko Widodo
But long-time allies may also be wondering just how far Washington still
has their back.
Shashank Joshi, senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in
London, said countries such as Japan and South Korea could lose
influence if Trump's focus of enlisting Xi's help over North Korea
creates a "sort of U.S.-China G2".
"There are competing instincts within Trump pushing him in opposite
directions," said Joshi.
"His nationalism pushes him towards competition with China, but his
deal-making instinct, his openness to personal influence, and his
affinity for strongmen pushes him towards Xi, especially if he can show
results on North Korea."
SOUTH CHINA SEA
Singapore-based security expert Ian Storey said he believed Trump's
remarks would be closely scrutinized by Southeast Asian leaders looking
for signs of an emerging Asia strategy.
"Most would welcome a calm, co-operative relationship between China and
the U.S., but they will be deeply concerned at anything that looks like
Trump will give Xi a free hand over the South China Sea dispute, or
elsewhere," said Storey, who is based at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak
The administration has so far sent out mixed rhetorical signals over the
hotly disputed South China Sea. China's extensive claims to the vital
global trade route are challenged by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines
and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan.
The U.S. has increased naval deployments in the South China Sea in
recent years amid roiling tensions and extensive island-building by
China but, under Trump, its warships have yet to challenge China with a
so-called freedom of navigation patrol close to disputed features.
[to top of second column]
President Donald Trump welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping at
Mar-a-Lago state in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., April 6, 2017.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo
Admiral Harry Harris, the chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, told
the U.S. Congress this week that he expected to be carrying out such
patrols soon, and repeated earlier concerns at China's continued
militarization of the area.
"Given Trump's newfound friendship with Xi Jinping, it might make it
significantly harder for the Pacific Command to get its plans
approved for the next freedom of navigation patrols," Storey said.
In Japan, often at odds with China over what Beijing views as
Tokyo's failure to properly atone for World War Two, a Japanese
government source sought to downplay any impact on the burgeoning
Trump-Xi friendship on Japan-U.S. ties.
"Trump's softened approach to Xi may seem to be some kind of shift
in the balance of power but security cooperation between Japan and
the United States is extremely stable and has been confirmed in the
face of the current crisis situation in North Korea," the source
The tricky issue of Taiwan has not gone away either, and is one of
several that could upset the new-found rapprochement.
Democratic Taiwan has many friends in Washington who will not want
to allow autocratic China to get its way with the island, and the
United States is bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to
Wang Dong, associate professor of international studies at Peking
University, said China would remain on alert for another change of
direction by Trump.
"There are reasons for optimism, but we are still being realistic.
There are still issues out there, from Taiwan to the South China
Sea," he said.
One Beijing-based Western diplomat told Reuters that, while China
might be pleased to see Trump hang ally South Korea out to dry with
his criticism of their free trade deal and demand Seoul pay $1
billion to host a U.S. anti-missile system China has strongly
opposed, China should not have any illusions.
"He's so unpredictable who knows what he'll say next week or next
month?" said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "His
mood turns on a pin."
(Additional reporting by Michael Martina, and Linda Sieg in Toyko,
Kanupriya Kapoor and Karen Lema in Manila, Sanjeev Miglani in New
Delhi, and Greg Torode in Hong Kong; Editing by Alex Richardson)
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