“It was a great honor to have President Xi Jinping and Madame Peng Liyuan of China as our guests … Tremendous goodwill and friendship was formed,” Trump tweeted shortly after the visit.
Three years later, and that “outstanding” relationship is a distant memory.
Trump no longer talks about his friendship with Xi as relations between the two countries continue to plummet, amid stark divisions over trade, technology, human rights and accusations of Chinese expansionism.
As Trump battles for reelection in November’s presidential election, experts now say that Xi may have missed a golden opportunity to establish a more beneficial relationship with the US President.
In Trump, China found an American leader who seemed focused on transactional politics and trade deals, rather than human rights and Chinese foreign policy, both topics which the ruling Communist Party have been traditionally eager to avoid.
It wasn’t just their relationship with the US either. More broadly, Trump’s isolationist “America First” foreign policy offered Xi a clear opening to assert China’s global leadership credentials across a range of key policy areas — from the climate crisis to free trade.
But rather than building up goodwill, China chose to intimidate its global partners and indulge in fierce nationalist rhetoric. And instead of becoming a global power to rival the US, China saw its reputation plunge around the world.
How Trump could have helped Xi
Less than a week before Trump took office in January 2017, Xi took the stage in Davos, Switzerland, at what appeared to be the dawn of a golden era for China and Beijing’s international influence.
In a speech to the global liberal elite at the World Economic Forum, held in the Swiss Alps, Xi called for countries to shun protectionism in a clear swipe at Trump’s “America First” rhetoric.
Daniel Russel, who was US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under President Barack Obama, said that it was Trump’s anti-globalist rhetoric as much as Xi’s words that made China look like a potential alternative global leader to the US.
“At the same time that Xi was hypocritically claiming to be the grand defender of the global system, Trump was attacking it viciously and putting forward a very nationalist jingoistic message. So that magnified the contrasts and widened the gap,” said Russel, who is now vice president of international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
“I think at the start of the Trump administration, China was being seen by the rest of the world as a country which potentially could provide a good steadying role in steering the world though the next turbulent phase in the coming few years,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute think tank in London.
For Xi, it was a remarkable 12 months. The Chinese government saw its stock rise internationally, built a close relationship with the new US President and had been handed strategic victories on trade, foreign policy and climate change. In short, “the Trump administration was a godsend for the Communist Party of China,” said Tsang.
Why it went wrong
Yet in October 2020, nearly four years after Trump was inaugurated, China’s global reputation is at its lowest point in years.
Poll numbers released by Pew Research on October 6 found that the Chinese government was viewed negatively in all 14 major countries surveyed, including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and the US. In 2002, 65% of US citizens surveyed viewed China favorably — in 2020 that number is just 22%. A massive 74% view China unfavorably.
The coronavirus pandemic, first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, has severely damaged Beijing’s reputation as countries struggle to deal with rising caseloads. Government leaders and officials around the world, including Trump, have accused Beijing of mishandling the outbreak by playing down the severity of the virus in the early stage, and allowing it to spread overseas.
But even before the outbreak, China was finding its reputation was beginning to dim, especially among Western nations.
For years, Australia has been at the forefront of the West’s uneasy embrace of China — a close US ally whose largest trading partner is Beijing. With an unpopular and isolationalist American leader, China had never had a better chance to woo Australia.
In 2017, more than 60% of Australians had a positive view of China, according to Pew. By 2020, it was just 15%.
On the 50th anniversary of Canada beginning diplomatic ties with China on October 14, Trudeau delivered a stern rebuke of Beijing’s international diplomacy and human rights record.
“We will remain absolutely committed to working with our allies to ensure that China’s approach of coercive diplomacy … is not viewed as a successful tactic by them,” he said.
In neighboring India, the rise of populist Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 had presented an opportunity for Xi and his government to woo New Delhi, a rising regional power that had long been courted by Washington.
Yinan He, associate professor at Lehigh University’s Department of International Relations, said that, over the past three years, when Beijing wasn’t actively starting diplomatic fights with other countries it often talked down to or intimidated them.
“The behavior of China under Xi Jinping really enraged many other countries,” she said.
Beijing has also faced growing criticism within the international community over several domestic controversies, including its ongoing crackdown on human rights and dissent, the erosion of civil rights in Hong Kong, and military expansionism in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
In particular, the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the western Xinjiang region has become a major concern for countries around the world. On October 6, Germany presented a statement to the United Nations on behalf of 39 countries, mostly from Europe and North America, publicly condemning China’s actions in Xinjiang, where up to 2 million people, mostly Turkic minorities, are believed to have been placed in detention centers.
But in the face of international criticism, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has not relented. In fact, Beijing has moved to embrace a new breed of aggressive diplomacy to combat what it has denounced as unfair and biased attacks on China.
Though the aggressive behavior has estranged diplomatic partners, Jessica Chen Weiss, associate professor of government at Cornell University, said the real target remains domestic.
According to Weiss, the authoritarian nature of China’s government means that it can’t brook any concession internationally that might seem like weakness at home. To the Communist Party, weakness might spell the end of its time in power.
“When push comes to the shove the Chinese government has to first and foremost focus on regime security,” said Weiss.
Experts say that in recent months there has been discussion within the Chinese government over whether these “wolf warrior” tactics have hurt their country more than they’ve helped. But for now, with international concerns over its handling of the coronavirus growing louder, any chance of a short-term revival for Beijing’s global reputation seems unlikely.
Weiss said that, in fact, China’s system of government may not actually have ever been up to the challenge of becoming the world’s leading superpower, at least not in the model of the US.
The Chinese government places as much importance on being feared as being loved, Weiss said, and that severely limits its ability to wield soft power and form close diplomatic relationships. According to Weiss, China is unlikely to take the US’ place, no matter how much Trump pulled back on the world stage.
“(Beijing wants to ensure) that nobody thinks China can be pushed around, or taken advantage of,” she said. “That emphasis on deterrence and intimidating dissent has conveyed Chinese resolve but it undercuts Beijing’s efforts to showcase its international image as a benign global leader.”
This year, Trump has been eager to inflame popular anger against China for its handling of Covid-19 — at least in part to distract from his administration’s own failure to contain the virus domestically.
He regularly describes the disease as the “China virus” and has placed a large proportion of the blame for the escalating US epidemic at Beijing’s door.
Yet despite his regular attacks on China, Trump never attacks Xi personally.
On August 11, seemingly more in sorrow than anger, Trump said he used to like Xi, but he didn’t “feel the same way now.”
Xi and Trump are now a long way from where they started three and a half years ago, and in that time Beijing’s reputation around the world has suffered.
“Anti-China sentiment is at its highest levels in decades … and Beijing is aware of that,” Weiss said.
“I suspect that Xi might be facing some internal challenges from people within the Communist Party who are not happy about his heavy-handed style,” said He, the Lehigh University China expert.
But whether or not China has taken advantage of the Trump administration’s shrunken presence on the world stage, experts said that in the long run, the fundamentals favor Beijing and Xi.
Russel said that the US and other leading nations were heavily reliant on China and the massive wealth generated by its economy, making any moves towards a broader decoupling and a return to a Cold War level of separation unlikely.
“If you look at it from China’s point of view … are you going to call into question the financial goose that lays the golden egg?” he said.