The Trump administration and Donald Trump personally seem hell-bent on insulting China both by intentional deeds and accidental failures in protocol.
While China’s week began with the Presidents of China and Russia as well as important business leaders signing a large series of bilateral deals, it also started with US Ambassador to the UN NIkki Haley totally disregarding China’s positions over North Korea which was shortly followed by two separate violations of Chinese territorial rights, first in the waters of the South China Sea and then in the air space overhead.
Making things worse, whereas Donald Trump had scheduled bilateral meetings both at the G20 and beyond with the leaders of Russia, Poland, South Korea, Japan, Britain and others, the way Trump spoke about his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping was as if meeting with the leader of a superpower which has more issues with America than Russia (both positive and negative ones), was an afterthought, as though it was a happenstance meeting on the way to the airport.
Leaving Hamburg for Washington, D.C. and the WH. Just left China’s President Xi where we had an excellent meeting on trade & North Korea.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 8, 2017
To make matters worse, the official US account of the discussions lacked an English translation of President Xi’s statements and most insulting of all to China, the US on an official document referred to China as “The Republic of China” rather than the correct full name of The People’s Republic of China. Far from just being an insignificant oversight, the Republic of China is the technical term for Chinese Taipei, often called Taiwan.
Had the US called the Russian Federation The Soviet Union or Russian Empire it would have been a far less important mistake for two reasons. First of all, The Russian Federation is the contiguous successor state to both the Russian Empire and Soviet Union and secondly, Russia has got so used to countries like the United States misrepresenting Russian history and Russia’s present realities, that Russian diplomats have resigned themselves to staying focused on the results rather than the process by which the results might be achieved.
For China, protocol is deeply important and referring to China by the self-styled name of a disputed province is deeply insulting.
Trump still doesn’t seem to fathom that bombing Syria while serving chocolate cake to the Chinese President was an insult. The America side also fails to realise that the fact that Mar-A-Lago was not big enough to house the Chinese delegation, forcing them to rent out a nearby hotel was also a gross oversight.
One could argue with some merit that Russia should be more public about private thoughts when countries like the United States insult Russia. This is a separate point and one worthy of discussion. However, the fact remains that China is publicly insulted by the United States when it refuses to treat its officials with dignity, refuses to acknowledge protocol and refuses to get very basic facts correct.
The idea that one needs to like everything about a country to engage with it respectfully is a western neurosis that only serves to make the western powers more isolated and disliked.
One can even go further and postulate the likely reasons why Trump doesn’t really grasp China is due to the following:
“Chinese culture dictates that protocol, a very formal way of showing respect and a stratified manner of governmental bureaucracy is very much the norm. It is a norm that Trump has not yet come to grips with which is why his relationship with China often seems condescending–something the Chinese take as an insult.
Ironically, the post-modern, politically correct American way of doing business is becoming increasingly similar to the rigid Chinese bureaucracy minus the intelligence, respect, background of Confucianism and class. Trump by contrast is the archetypal straight-shooting American”.
As someone who admires Chinese culture and Chinese national achievements, I accept that Donald Trump will never fully develop a real understanding of China. In many ways European leaders are even worse in this respect. But what is unacceptable is for one super-power to treat another with so little respect.
Donald Trump needn’t study China to realise that basic rules of diplomatic engagement and a bit of personal respect as China understands it would go a long way towards reducing tensions.