BERKELEY – Donald Trump’s comments about China during the US presidential campaign didn’t exactly bolster high hopes for Sino-American relations once he was elected. Trump denounced China for “taking our jobs,” and “[stealing] hundreds of billions of dollars in our intellectual property.” He repeatedly accused China of manipulating its currency. The low point came last May, when Trump warned his followers that, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country. That’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.”
Given such inflammatory rhetoric, many people understandably felt considerable trepidation in the run-up to Trump’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. It wasn’t hard to imagine a refused handshake or the presentation of a bill for payment, like the one Trump reportedly gave visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel (a report denied by the White House).
Instead, Trump treated Xi with considerable deference. One explanation is that he was preoccupied by the impending US missile strike on Syria. Another is that it is easier to command Trump’s respect when you have an aircraft carrier, 3,000 military planes, and 1.6 million ground troops.
But the best explanation is surely that the US depends too heavily on China, economically and politically, for even a president as diplomatically reckless as Trump to spark a conflict.