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As China’s leader comes to Russia US acts to end Trump-Xi friendship

President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, sit with their wives, first lady Melania Trump, left, and Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan, right, before a meeting at Mar-a-Lago, Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Back in April, at the time of the US-Chinese summit in Mar-a-Lago in Florida, I said that US President Trump, inexperienced in foreign affairs, was badly misreading China’s President Xi Jinping.

In particular President Trump misread the Chinese President’s habitual courtesy as a concrete commitment that China would take action against North Korea in connection with that country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme, and as a sign of Chinese support for the US cruise missile attack on Syria’s Al-Shayrat air base.

I said that this was all completely wrong.  Here is what I wrote about the summit at the time

The Chinese President must have found his recent meeting with US President Trump a strange affair.  Much of it was taken up with social engagements.  No important agreements were reached, and it doesn’t seem as if any really substantive discussions – for example on trade issues – took place.

The Chinese President must also have been bemused – and cannot have been at all amused – to be told without any advance notice over chocolate cake and without his aides available to advise him that the US President had just launched a missile strike on Syria.

President Trump did discuss with President Xi the festering North Korean crisis, but as is becoming the pattern with this inexperienced US President, he appears to be misreading the Chinese President’s typical courtesy and his standard assurances that China shares the US’s concerns about the North Korean nuclear programme as a commitment by China to do more to stop the North Korean nuclear programme than it is already doing.

That is almost certainly wrong, and the Chinese will also not be happy either by the recent US carrier deployment to the Korean coast, or by the US President’s threats to solve the Korean crisis by unilateral action, which they almost certainly construe (probably rightly) as empty bluff.

One suspects that Xi Jinping is relieved that with Putin he is getting back to normal business again.

Every one of these observations has since come true, with the Chinese in particular rejecting President Trump’s demands for all-embracing sanctions against North Korea.  Indeed as I discussed at the time, given the extent to which China’s prestige is bound up with preservation of the current regime in North Korea, it could not have been otherwise.

That President Trump totally misunderstood President Xi Jinping during their meeting in Mar-a-Lago has now been admitted by the Financial Times

The deteriorating relations come less than 100 days since Mr Trump hosted Mr Xi at his Mar-a-Lago estate and said the leaders would have a “very great relationship”. Since then, the White House has become frustrated China was not doing enough to pressure North Korea to abandon its ballistic missile and nuclear programmes….

“Early optimism on the US side has been dashed by what Trump thought he heard at Mar-a-Lago,” said Dennis Wilder, a former top White House Asia official. “This was a classic case where Trump heard what he wanted to hear, but it wasn’t actually the message that Xi intended to send.”

(bold italics added)

The result – in what I am sorry to say is an all too typical display of petulance – is that the Trump administration has now announced a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan and is imposing sanctions on certain Chinese businesses which it accuses of conducting business with North Korea.

The Chinese are predictably furious, with their embassy in Washington publishing what is for them an unusually strong statement, which deserves to be set out in full

China is firmly opposed to the U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. China’s stance is clear and firm. The U.S. nevertheless made the wrong decision to sale arms to Taiwan in disregard of China’s strong representations. It seriously violates the principles of the three Joint Communiqués between China and the U.S., in particular, the August 17, 1982 U.S.-China Communiqué on Arms Sales to Taiwan, grossly interferes China’s domestic affairs, jeopardizes China’s sovereign and security interest and undermines China’s efforts to realize national unification. The Chinese government and Chinese people have every right to be outraged. The Chinese side has lodged serious representation to the U.S. side, and reserves every right to take further action.

The wrong move of the U.S. side runs counter to the consensus reached by the two presidents in Mar-a-Lago and the positive development momentum of the China-U.S. relationship. It will harm the mutual trust and cooperation between China and the U.S.. We urge the U.S. to immediately revoke the wrong decision and stop the arms sale to Taiwan.

The Democratic Progressive Party authorities refused to recognize the 1992 Consensus and the core principle that the two sides of the Taiwan Straits belongs to one China, and take “dechinalize” measures in Taiwan. The arms sale by the U.S. sends a very wrong signal to the “Taiwan independence” forces and harms the cross-Straits peace and stability. The U.S. has repeatedly said that it has profound interest in maintaining peace and stability across the Straits. However, its deeds contradicted its words.

Taiwan is a part of China. One China principle is a norm widely recognized by the international community. Realizing national unification at an early date is a common wish of the Chinese people, including Taiwan compatriots. It is the aspiration of the people and the general trend that will not be stopped by arms sale to Taiwan by some countries. We are confident and capable to contain the separatist activities of the “Taiwan independence” forces and defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity. We will never allow anyone to separate Taiwan from the country.

President Trump is not the first US President since the US and China re-established diplomatic relations to authorise arms sales to Taiwan.  However what will have made the Chinese especially angry is that no attempt is being made to conceal that this is being done as ‘punishment’ for China’s failure to do the US’s bidding over North Korea.  Here is what the Financial Times has to say about this

The White House had held off approving arms for Taiwan and sanctioning Chinese entities helping North Korea in the hope that Beijing would greatly ramp up pressure on Pyongyang after what Mr Trump interpreted as positive signals from Mr Xi. But while US officials concede that China has done more than before, including halting coal imports, they are increasingly frustrated that it has not gone even further…..

In addition to approving a $1.4bn weapons package for Taiwan — the first arms sales to the island that China considers part of its territory since 2015 — the US announced it would cut off Bank of Dandong, a Chinese bank near the border with North Korea, from the US financial system for helping Pyongyang engage in money laundering. It also imposed sanctions on a Chinese firm and two individuals over their ties with North Korea.

The proposed US sanctions would target Bank of Dandong, which is a relatively small financial institution but a significant symbol.

The last time the US government targeted a Chinese bank for its alleged dealings with North Korea was in 2005, when the Bush administration barred US companies from dealing with Banco Delta Asia in Macau.

While such moves were always going to anger Beijing, they were particularly pointed because they were announced as Mr Xi was arriving in Hong Kong to preside over ceremonies on Saturday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the return of the British colony to China. They also came one week before Mr Trump and Mr Xi will meet on the sidelines of the G20 in Hamburg.

“The Chinese side has seen these things coming but is probably exasperated by the timing,” said Yanmei Xie at Gavekal Dragonomics, a Beijing-based consultancy. “Beijing wants the international media to focus on the pomp and ceremony of Xi Jinping’s visit to Hong Kong, not its failure to rein in North Korea.”

Unlike previous presidents, Mr Trump has explicitly linked Sino-US security talks with trade and economic disputes.

This is a short-sighted strategy.  At the height of the Khan Sheikhoun crisis in April the Trump administration seemed to be pursuing a policy of trying to isolate Russia from China.  In fact it even boasted it had succeeded in doing so during a vote in the UN Security Council.

That was always absurd, and provoked a public message of support for the Russian-Chinese alliance from Chinese President Xi Jinping to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Nonetheless, though the Trump administration’s attempts in April to cause trouble between China and Russia were inept and certain to fail, they did nonetheless possess a certain crude geopolitical logic.  By far the greatest challenge to the US’s global position today comes from the alliance of Russia and China.  It is very much in the US interest to break up this alliance, unachievable though that objective unquestionably is.

Instead, on the eve of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow on 3rd July 2017, and his summit meeting there with President Putin, clumsy US diplomacy has brought China and Russia if possible even closer together, and has brought home to the Chinese what they gain from the support of their Russian friends.

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