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The reason why Chinese President Xi Jinping recently felt driven to send a personal message to Russian President Vladimir Putin reaffirming China’s friendship and de facto alliance with Russia became all too clear when then Trump administration published on the White House website on Thursday 27th April 2017 a list of its foreign policy achievements in its first 100 days.
By most conventional criteria the list of ‘achievements’ is remarkably thin. That is hardly surprising given that Donald Trump has been President for just 3 months. It is scarcely credible that any US administration would achieve any great breakthrough in foreign policy in the first 3 months of its existence, and I cannot recall a single case in recent history when that has happened. Any other President would not waste his time with such a list at such an early stage in his administration when publishing it can only provoke ridicule.
This President is however different, and here for completeness is the list, or rather that part of it which concerns foreign policy
PUTTING AMERICA FIRST, PROTECTING NATIONAL SECURITY: President Donald J. Trump’s top priority is the security of the American people and the American homeland.
- President Trump has prioritized rebuilding and empowering the military to restore national security. During his first 100 days, the President has:
- Advocated increasing the defense budget by $54 billion to end the devastating effects of the sequestration that has persisted for years.
- Empowered commanders in the field to make decisions.
- Saved hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars by negotiating with defense contractors.
- President Trump has stood up to countries that have threatened our national security after years of failed diplomacy. During his first 100 days, the President has:
- Sent a message to the world with his swift and decisive order to strike the Syrian air base that launched a horrific chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians.
- Further isolated Syria and Russia at the United Nations through successful diplomacy with President Xi Jinping of China.
- Imposed sanctions on Syria for its use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians.
- Imposed sanctions on Iran for violating an international agreement that restricts its ballistic missile programs.
- Worked to isolate North Korea and repositioned military assets to confront the regime’s provocative missile tests.
AMERICA FIRST DIPLOMACY: President Trump has rebuilt America’s standing in the world and forged stronger ties with our allies.
- President Trump has actively reached out to world leaders to advance American interests and build relationships. During his first 100 days, President Trump has:
- Made 70 calls to 38 different world leaders.
- Hosted 17 bilateral meetings with world leaders.
- President Trump negotiated with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to free American charity worker Aya Hijazi, her husband, and four other humanitarian workers
(bold italics added)
The words I have highlighted are the ones which have set the alarm bells ringing in Beijing and Moscow. President Trump is bragging that through his personal diplomacy with China’s President Xi Jinping he split away China from Russia in the UN Security Council in the vote on the alleged chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun.
This is totally delusional. China did not support the draft Resolution the US presented to the UN Security Council in connection with the alleged chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun. Instead after a personal appeal from President Trump to President Xi Jinping it abstained on the vote on it, doing so however in the knowledge that Russia would veto it.
I have discussed this vote in the UN Security Council previously, and explained at length why China decided to abstain in the vote, and why this is of no significance
That the Trump administration is indeed trying to make trouble between Beijing and Moscow has been all but confirmed by no less a person than President Trump’s National Security Adviser, General H.R. McMaster, who in an interview with ABC television said the following
What we do know is that, in the midst of responding to the mass murder of the Syrian regime, the president (Trump) and the first lady hosted an extraordinarily successful conference, summit, with President Xi and his team. And not only did they establish a very warm relationship, but… they worked together as well in connection with the response to the mass murder on the part of the Assad regime in connection with the U.N. vote. I think President Xi was courageous in distancing himself from the Russians, isolating really the Russians and the Bolivians… And I think the world saw that, and they (Xi) saw, well, what club do you want to be in? The Russian-Bolivian club? Or the — in the club with the United States, working together on our mutual interests and the interests of peace, security
(bold italics added)
This comment serves as a further illustration of the inexperience and naivety of US diplomacy in the age of Trump. It confirms that China abstained in the vote in the UN Security Council on 12th April 2017 following a personal request from Trump to Xi Jinping. However it completely misconstrues the meaning of that act.
The Chinese almost certainly cleared their decision to abstain in the UN Security Council vote ahead of the vote with Moscow. From their point of view and that of the Russians a decision by China to abstain would have meant little. There was no possibility that the draft Resolution would pass because Russia had already made known it would veto it, whilst the US had already removed the most offensive words in the draft of the Resolution before it was put to the vote by deleting wording in the draft which blamed the Khan Sheikhoun incident on the Syrian government before any investigation had taken place.
Why would China hurt and humiliate Trump – whom Xi Jinping had met just days before – by refusing his request and voting against a Resolution which was no longer controversial, which did not concern an issue important to China, and which the Chinese knew the Russians were going to veto anyway?
What was undoubtedly intended by the Chinese as a simple diplomatic courtesy to the new US President over an issue which for China is of secondary importance, is however now being misconstrued by the Trump administration as a big step by China against Russia.
To be clear, it would have been an entirely different matter if China had voted for the Resolution after Russia had made known it would vote against it. In that case it would have been legitimate to speak of a serious rift over the Syrian issue between Beijing and Moscow. However an abstention should not be construed in that way.
China has previously abstained on votes in the UN Security Council on Syria and Ukraine, and it is far from unusual for China to sidestep Western criticism by acting in this way over issues which it regards as being of only secondary importance to itself. The Russians understand this fully, and have never shown any concern about it.
It is however fully understandable that in light of the sort of comments that have been coming out of the Trump administration the Chinese leadership should now be pulling out the stops to make clear that China’s alliance with Russia is unaffected and as strong as always.
By no means everything President Trump is doing in foreign policy is wrong. The single most positive thing he has done and which is mentioned in the list is that he has made 70 calls to 38 foreign leaders in just 3 months.
This contrasts sharply with the aloof and arrogant behaviour of his predecessor Barack Obama, who barely condescended to speak to other world leaders except in the highly controlled setting of summits and only after hours of briefings.
Unlike Obama President Trump seems instinctively to understand that personal contact with other world leaders is essential if the US is to conduct its foreign policy successfully.
However President Trump also has to understand that the good effect of this will be undone if he persists in misunderstanding and misrepresenting what other leaders say to him.
His juvenile attempt to split China from Russia, his adolescent bragging about it, and his ham-fisted attempts to play China off against North Korea, are not only obliging the Chinese leadership to take urgent steps to reaffirm the enduring strength of China’s relationship with Russia.
They are starting to make China angry, with the result that Chinese criticism of US policy in Syria and Korea is increasing, whilst China is now hardening its stance on the North Korean issue, and is publicly backing North Korean demands for an end to joint military exercises in the Korean Peninsula between the US and South Korea, establishing a linkage between those exercises and the North Korean nuclear weapons programme which the US in the past has always resisted.
As for the reality of Chinese and Russian cooperation in the UN Security Council, that was on full public display yesterday on the critical North Korea issue, when the Russians strongly backing China in a way that clearly shows that the leaderships of China and Russia were coordinating closely with each other.
This most amateur and inexperienced of Presidents urgently needs to start listening to some good advice from the many well-intentioned foreign policy specialists of the realist school there still are in the US, who are anxious to advise and help him, but whose advice and help he has so far spurned.
He also needs to learn both how to hold his tongue, and how to read diplomatic signals correctly.
Above all he needs to understand that international diplomacy is not conducted in the same way that commercial deal making in the US property industry is.
If he fails to learn these lessons soon, then he may find before long that other world leaders will start refusing to take his calls.