US President Donald Trump has been weakened on the international stage by political dramas at home, while Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping’s clout is growing, according to former diplomats at a symposium on U.S.-China relations. J. Stapleton Roy, who was an envoy to China under the administration of George H. W. Bush, told the conference on Monday in Des Moines, Iowa, the U.S. “is mired in an emerging political crisis that could that could have far reaching implications.” Roy, who has met every top Chinese leader since Mao Zedong’s designated successor, Hua Guofeng, said later in an interview that Trump could find it harder to make international deals because of ongoing investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 election and, potentially, his administration. “It weakens a national leader when there is a brewing crisis that could affect his position, both in the world and his domestic position,” he said. Iowa is the home state of the new ambassador to China, former Governor Terry Branstad, who didn’t attend the forum but has a long-standing relationship with Xi. They met in 1985 on Xi’s first trip to Iowa, when Xi was a young agricultural official from Hebei province.
Since coming to power Trump has signaled a more protectionist stance on trade and pulled the U.S. out of a 12-nation Pacific pact. That has given Xi an opening to tout China’s globalization credentials on the international stage and present his country as a defender of free trade and the Paris climate accord. Trump has also indicated a less predictable approach to foreign policy that raises doubts about the U.S. strategic commitment to Asia.
Xi, widely seen as China’s strongest leader since Deng Xiaoping in the late 20th century, has slowly reoriented foreign policy. Burnishing his image overseas may also help him boost his grip on power at home ahead of a twice-a-decade leadership reshuffle that will determine his ability to enact a politically fraught economic overhaul.
Julia Chang Bloch, a Chinese immigrant and former U.S. envoy to Nepal, said Trump’s decisions to withdraw from international agreements helped China’s clout. She cited the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and Paris agreement.
“In effect, he has left the field open for Chinese leadership,” said Bloch, who was also appointed by Bush. Still, she said conversations with business and political leaders during a recent trip to China revealed an appreciation for Trump’s willingness to deal.
“Many of them think they can work with him much better than President Obama,” she said. “Already, there is suspicion that Trump may give up on the South China Sea or make concessions on trade in exchange for China’s help with North Korea.”
Among the most pressing and sensitive challenges facing Trump in his relationship with China is to get Xi’s help in containing North Korea, with the isolated regime recently repeating its claim to be progressing on an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the U.S. west coast.
The Chinese believe that Trump is willing to deal and overlook non-transactional matters, Bloch said. “This is also good for China, as Chinese, I think, much prefer a U.S. president who cares more about business and business deals than promoting ideological values such as democracy and human rights,” she said.
The Chinese had a much rosier view of the summit in April between Xi and Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida than many Americans, Bloch said. While the U.S. media stressed the lack of tangible accomplishments, she said the Chinese took pride in the fact Trump treated Xi with respect.
“Mar-a-Lago burnished President Xi’s place on the global stage and ended the U.S.-China, teacher-student relationship,” she said. Tensions between the world’s two largest economies have grown in recent years, and Trump delivered heated rhetoric about China on the campaign trail, especially blasting trade deals that generated U.S. deficits. After Trump’s election — and before being sworn into office — he abandoned almost four decades of diplomatic protocol in December by speaking directly with the leader of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a province.
Still, ties between China and the U.S. are likely to remain solid, Roy predicted, as long as the U.S. sticks to the longstanding “One China” policy framework.
“It was so destabilizing when President-elect Trump talked about using the One China position as a bargaining chip with China to deal with trade and other issues,” he said. “Since then, of course, he has recognized that was not a viable approach to managing our bilateral relationship, and he has indicated in conversations with President Xi that we would be guided by our traditional One China policy.”