HONG KONG—In February, the French daily Le Monde published a map reportedly circulated by the Chinese military. It showed the People’s Republic in the center of the globe with all else shrinking away toward the edges: “The world turned upside down for anyone used to looking at the maps in common use since the 16th century,” as Le Monde put it. It’s a simple but telling reassertion of China’s identity as expressed in its own language: It is the “Middle Kingdom,” the center of everything.
Another map, of the infamous Nine-Dash Line, has caused much consternation in East and Southeast Asia as it reflects the nation’s growing maritime aspirations. Informally called “the cow’s tongue,” the dashed line slurps along the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam, showing the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) claims to virtually the entire South China Sea. Plans for New Silk Roads on land and at sea sketch ambitions for increased economic influence from Central Asia to the heart of Europe.
Such maps are telling in that they reveal how the People’s Republic views its station on the global stage: central, expanding, probing for weakness, and finding plenty of it.
As Presidents Donald J. Trump and Xi Jinping prepare to meet at the Mar-a-Lago golf resort on Thursday and Friday to discuss U.S.-China trade and matters related to North Korea, such maps will prime the attitude of the Chinese delegation as they touch down on American soil. And even the local geography is inauspicious.
Setting up the meeting at a golf resort might be a move to place Trump on his home turf where he feels comfortable, but it also reflects a poor read on the CCP’s leadership. Golf was once denounced vehemently by Mao Zedong as a “sport for millionaires,” and the CCP banned its 88 million members from swinging clubs in 2015.
The golf ban was revoked last year, but golf still carries a negative tinge thanks to Xi’s harsh anti-corruption campaign, in which Chinese officials who have been abusing their position for unchecked personal gain are punished severely—especially if they do not see eye to eye with the party’s paramount leader.
The words spoken by candidate Trump at a Ft. Wayne, Indiana, rally on May 2, 2016, have not faded from the CCP’s collective memory: “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country—and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest threat in the history of the world.”
Candidate Trump promised to label China a currency manipulator “on day one” of his presidency and threatened to implement heavy-handed tariffs, but those tirades have been largely absent in President Trump’s outbursts on Twitter. Perhaps he finally realized that a trade war with China would hurt America far more than the People’s Republic.
China, with its infrastructure projects and trade deals stretching from Bangladesh to Djibouti, Nigeria to Peru, has no intention of shooting itself in the foot during its global ascent. Actual armed conflict is off the table, too.
After all, the Chinese do not want to disrupt the status quo: China shipped nearly $463 billion in goods to the U.S. last year, and was by far the largest exporter to the States. The trade deficit between the U.S. and China was $347 billion in 2016.
Three months ago, days before Trump’s presidential inauguration ceremony, Xi Jinping stood at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to deliver a speech that was a surprisingly eloquent defense of free trade.
The timing of Xi’s appearance was key: After receiving invitations for years, it was the first time a Chinese leader appeared at the annual meeting attended by “masters of the universe”—political, corporate, and banking leaders—and Xi presented his party’s ambition to take on an even greater role on the global stage as Trump’s isolationist doctrine of “America First” turns the U.S. inward.
Xi said that restraining trade via tariffs was like “locking oneself in a dark room” for protection, which cuts off all “light and air.” During the nearly hour-long speech by the Chinese president, the likes of Joe Biden and John Kerry—both lame ducks—could only look on.
That’s not to say Beijing aims to replace Washington, D.C., any time soon. But as America slips, China is ready to pick up the slack. At least, that is Xi’s message to all foreign governments.
Trade and economic health are not the only things on Xi’s mind. China has been making strides in developing renewable energy technology, and will pour ¥2.5 trillion, or about $363 billion, into renewable power generation in the coming four years. Already, the world’s largest energy market is slowly abandoning dirty coal.
The CCP has a strict continuity in “big picture” policies as power shifts into new hands; maybe—just maybe—the smog will gradually lift over Beijing.
Trump, on the other hand, has moved to dial back the already feeble American strategy to tackle climate change. Last Tuesday, he signed an executive order to rein in the federal government’s enforcement of climate regulations, even saying that his administration is “putting an end to the war on coal,” vowing to bring back coal mining jobs and end “the theft of prosperity.”
Trump has eschewed the State Department’s seasoned diplomats. Instead, Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, has been the administration’s point man on China (as well as a number of other foreign governments, and even the Palestine question).
Kushner has cultivated a relationship with the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, and arranged for a phone call between Trump and Xi to discuss the “One China” policy, which states that Taiwan and mainland China are inalienable parts of a single Chinese nation. Already, Trump has capitulated, and said he will support Beijing’s stance.
Trump’s comments about China in the past, like those accusing the People’s Republic of currency manipulation, and claiming that the concept of global warming was created by the Chinese to neuter U.S. manufacturing, have certainly ruffled feathers in Beijing.
However, even before Trump took the oath of office—before he and his advisers were given the platform to implement embarrassingly inefficient policies—a senior Chinese official had already summed up the CCP’s view of the new president. The official couldn’t suppress a grin. “We can handle Trump,” he said. The official didn’t have to draw anyone a map.