Francis Moriarty: A tale of two presidents
It is a pivotal moment for America's role in Asia and globally. The summit is equally meaningful for China. All the usual issues are on the table, plus the vexatious question of North Korea, the little mouse that is close to emitting a nuclear-tipped roar.
American military forces are being quietly beefed up. A naval battle group and a nuclear-powered submarine have reportedly moved into the region, a buildup of munitions has been underway in Guam, and there is open talk of high-tech weaponry for Japan and South Korea.
It is clear what China can do for the U.S. in pressuring North Korea to stop missile and warhead tests. Less clear is what China's price for such help might be.
One possibility is a weakening of Washington's support for self-governing Taiwan. It's also possible, given China's past record, that Liu Xia — widow of the Nobel Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiabo — might be offered as a negotiating chip.
Which brings us to the tale of the two presidents.
On one side is Xi Jinping, victorious and riding high, his critics and challengers vanquished or silenced. He has just been crowned head of a wealthy and expansionist nation eager to project its economic and military importance in the region and beyond. Domestic opposition is all but snuffed out. Nettlesome Hong Kong is being brought to heel. For Xi, this is the start of a new era of national self-confidence that bears his personal stamp. In short, his story is China Rising.
Xi is studied, confident, well briefed and relentlessly on message. In person, he exudes a physical self-confidence. He has just been guaranteed five more years in power and maybe more, as there is no evident successor. The Communist Party has elevated his thinking to the level of dogma, meaning that to criticize Xi now is to attack China's constitution. When Xi speaks of a China ruled by law, there's no doubt whose law that is. It is almost obligatory to mention him in the same breath with Mao Zedong, who proclaimed the birth of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
Just ahead of the two-day summit, it was revealed that China has obtained large dredgers capable of building islands — a significant threat in the South China Sea, where Beijing has constructed fortifications and landing strips on disputed islands and atolls that are also claimed by several other nations. China is redrawing the map to its benefit.
Study in contradiction
On the other side of the table is Donald Trump, making a 12-day trip through the region — a day more than originally planned. He is fresh from a visit to South Korea, where he made a show of unity with South Korea's moderate president Moon Jae-in, who favors negotiations with North Korea.
Trump is a leader who rattles his sabre while bugling retreat. He downgrades international alliances, and makes jingoistic promises of a better tomorrow by raising drawbridges and building a wall. He's a study in ambivalence and contradiction. His story is Conflicted America.
At the same time that the U.S. has been shipping fresh armaments to Guam, the forward point of its military power in the region, Trump needed to be persuaded to extend his Asian swing in order to attend a meeting of regional nations that he intended to skip. Advisors and diplomats were worried by the negative message that his absence would send.
He has already withdrawn America from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, created by President Barack Obama. That left other nations little option but to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a new Chinese venture. The incident shows that any vacuum left by U.S. withdrawal is likely to be filled by China.
Trump's binomial character unsettles other nations. He boasts of military strength, but complains that U.S. nuclear forces are badly in need of upgrade. He threatens North Korea with destruction, seemingly unfazed by the millions of deaths that a war would involve. He reflexively turns toward Japan, a less than comforting move for people who have suffered under Japanese rule.
Unlike Xi, Trump can't keep his mind from occasionally going walkabout. Arriving in Japan, he sent a warning to North Korea, telling U.S. and Japanese troops: "Every once in a while, in the past, they (dictators) underestimated us. It was not pleasant for them, was it?" For Japanese, the only people ever to have nuclear bombs dropped on them (twice), it was indeed not pleasant.
What will the Beijing summit produce? Some analysts think that if Trump can move toward Beijing's position on North Korea, a positive outcome is possible. Pyongyang will never surrender its nuclear ambitions, but it might put a brake on development in exchange for a reciprocal U.S. action.
Otherwise, if past is prologue, Trump and his team will come away praising the deals reached in Beijing, only to find themselves writing memoirs wondering whatever became of the promised benefits. Those who have engaged in or covered trade talks will know how this goes.
Francis Moriarty is an independent journalist and broadcaster covering Hong Kong, mainland China and Asia.
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