Why Playing Nice With China at Mar-a-Lago Is Dangerous

Most everything people believe about U.S.-China relations is wrong. At this late date, Washington should raise tensions, not try to lower them.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

It’s been called a “blind date.” In the two-day event that starts Thursday in an ornate resort along Florida’s Gold Coast, Donald Trump must save his faltering presidency; Xi Jinping hopes to assure his increasingly dictatorial rule.

They meet at Mar-a-Lago. There, the leaders of the world’s two most powerful countries shake hands for the first time, and just about everything is on the line.

Most meetings of American and Chinese leaders are planned well in advance and highly scripted. This summit is anything but. And it is more important than any since Richard Nixon went to Beijing four decades ago.

The worst outcome this time, at least from America’s long-term perspective, is what most everyone seems to want: that Trump and Xi develop “good personal chemistry,” issue joint statements, speak of long-term cooperation. But the United States has much to lose with more talk of “friendship.”

In short, it’s time for Trump to dump policies that sound good to the ear but no longer work. Instead, he should ignore convention, disrupt settled Sino-U.S. ties, and even raise tensions.

Yes, raise tensions.

The mantra in Washington has always been to do the opposite. In the George W. Bush era, the goal was “a relationship that is candid, constructive, and cooperative.” In the Obama years, the objective was to “find common ground” and “manage differences.” The idea has always been, whatever the formulation, that America’s relations with Beijing were “too big to fail.”

As a result of this perception, the U.S. did not confront Chinese actions that could only be described as dangerous and unacceptable. Naturally, Beijing saw a green light to continue such conduct.

Take China’s relations with its only formal ally, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Sometime around the beginning of this decade, a Chinese enterprise affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army supplied North Korea’s military with at least six transporter-erector-launchers for the KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile. The Obama administration raised an inquiry with Beijing, and the Chinese said they merely provided the chassis for the TELs, as the missile carriers are known. The explanation was implausible as the Chinese vehicles are wider than most of the roads in North Korea’s logging areas.

Supplying the TELs was significant. The KN-08 is Pyongyang’s first long-range missile that is, practically speaking, a usable weapon: the Chinese vehicles mean the KN-08 can hide before launching. The North’s other long-range missiles take weeks to transport, assemble, fuel, and test and as a result can easily be destroyed while still on their pads.

Beijing’s proliferation, unfortunately but predictably, has continued. China is the most likely source—either directly or through one of its client states—of the plans for its JL-1 submarine-launched missile. The solid-fuel missiles North Korea tested Aug. 24 and Feb. 12 appear to be modeled on the Chinese one.

Chinese enterprises have in recent years also sold uranium hexafluoride and components—vacuum pumps, valves, and computers—for the North’s nuclear weapons program.

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In short, China has provided technology, equipment, and components to a regime that continually threatens to launch nukes against the American homeland. In these circumstances, it is hard to see how there can be “common ground” with Beijing.

Trump’s response to China, as he told the Financial Times, is to take unilateral actions to end the threat. Nonetheless, he is still holding out the possibility of working with Beijing.

Every new administration seeks China’s help, and most everyone agrees with that approach. “A lot of the problems between China and the U.S. have no solution really,” Gal Luft of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security admitted to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. “But they can be managed.”

Should they? Americans believe “good” relations with a nation are “friendly” relations. That’s wrong. Good relations are those that protect America’s interests and those of its allies and friends. As James Fanell, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer with the Pacific Fleet, tells The Daily Beast, America should have a “results-oriented relationship with China.”

“President Trump must make it unambiguously clear that China’s behavior is unacceptable and will be challenged by the full weight of the United States and the rest of the international community,” he said, commenting on the upcoming Mar-a-Lago meeting.

Telling that to Xi Jinping undoubtedly will upset him, but his feelings are not our concern. What is our concern is that the U.S. is running out of time when it comes to, say, North Korea. Within perhaps as few as four years, the Kim regime will have a missile that can deliver a nuclear warhead to the lower 48 states. As Charles Burton of Brock University told me last week, “The most challenging issue in Mar-a-Lago for Trump is North Korea.”

But Korea is not the only item on the agenda of course. The U.S. is also running out of time when it comes to other areas of disagreement, such as China’s building garrisons on three of the islands it reclaimed in the Spratly chain in the South China Sea. Moreover, last month it ordered an American B-1 bomber to leave international airspace over the East China Sea, an act tantamount to claiming sovereignty over that body of water. China’s “unsafe” intercepts of the U.S. Navy and Air Force in the global commons are continuing at a fast pace.

For commercial purposes, China and Russia are cyberattacking in tag-team fashion American corporations, taking hundreds of billions of dollars a year in intellectual property. Beijing is allowing its banks to participate in money-laundering and other nefarious activities.

China is increasingly closing off its internal market to American companies with its Made in China 2025 initiative and its new Cybersecurity Law, and it is, with predatory intent, flooding the world with subsidized steel, aluminum, and other exports, devastating industries around the world, including those in the United States.

Bad actors never want to be opposed, confronted, or contained. They always promote cordial relationships with their victims and bystanders so they can achieve their aims. Trump raising tensions, therefore, is the right direction even if it is not by itself a “strategy.”

He made the right strategic moves in December and January by boosting the status of a friendly free society. He accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and in subsequent interviews said he did not feel bound by Washington’s One-China policy.

In February, unfortunately, Trump backed down from that groundbreaking and resolute stance. In a phone call with Xi he said he accepted that policy after all. America’s China watchers and policymakers were relieved that the new president, by acceding to Beijing’s demands, was making a meeting with the Chinese leader possible.

“I think both leaders recognize they’re dealing with probably the most important country from each side’s standpoint,” said former American diplomat Stapleton Roy. “Therefore, if things go wrong, it has very serious potential consequences.”

Agreed. But at this late date “going wrong” from the American perspective is the Florida meeting ending in smiles, talk of mutual respect, and continued Chinese bad acts jeopardizing the U.S. and the international community.