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David Lampton on the Trump-Xi Mar-a-Lago summit

Photograph of Professor LamptonDavid M. Lampton is Hyman Professor and Director of China Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he also heads SAIS China, the school’s overall presence in greater China. Chairman of the The Asia Foundation, former president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, and former Dean of Faculty at SAIS, he is the author of: Same Bed, Different Dreams: Managing U.S.-China Relations, 1989-2000 (2001); The Three Faces of Chinese Power: Might, Money, and Minds (2008); and, The Making of Chinese Foreign and Security Policy (editor, 2001). He received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees from Stanford University. Lampton has an honorary doctorate from the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies, is an Honorary Senior Fellow of the American Studies Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was winner of the Scalapino Prize in 2010, and is a Gilman Scholar at Johns Hopkins. His newest book, Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, was published by UC Press in January 2014 and translated into Chinese by Yuan Liou Press in Taipei, Taiwan, the following year. His current field research and book-length project is: “Roads to Chinese Power: Railroad Infrastructure and Beijing’s Quest for Influence.” On April 10, 2017, he spoke with Michael Grouskay CMC '17.

Photograph and bio courtesy of Dr. Lampton.

In your opinion, how successful was last week’s summit in setting the tone for future U.S.-China relations? Specifically, where have Trump and Xi made the most progress? Where have they made little or no progress?

Before judging success you have to ask what the objectives of the two parties were. I think President Xi in some senses had the simpler objective, which was to look good at the end of it; this included not being embarrassed (which with Trump may have been quite a worry actually), getting some good pictures, and talking about cooperation and success without being too specific. So I would say from President Xi’s point of view it was a significant success. President Xi would like to be seen as in charge, unflappable, and setting the agenda, but of course in the middle of the whole thing, the attention got ripped away from him and focused instead on our president, and the strike on Syria. In some senses, I think President Xi looked like he was reacting to important events that he had absolutely no control over, but given what censorship is in the PRC, only the discerning reader or observer would understand that problem for him. The average person would have seen good pictures, talk about progress, and vocabulary of success without Xi making a single difficult commitment for China. He absolutely didn’t make any commitment publicly, that we know about, though we don’t know what was said privately (beyond what the American participants said about it afterwards). So I would say from President Xi’s point of view, this was highly successful, although I think he would have wished that the Syria strike occurred when he wasn’t around. 

From Trump’s viewpoint, it was interesting that Trump started it out on the first day by saying that President Xi gave him absolutely nothing. And of course by the end of it, it looked nearly that way. Trump had the more difficult objectives because he wanted a result-oriented summit, which means China making progress on issues that the U.S. actually cares about and among those issues is North Korea — we don’t know what was said about that, but nothing was agreed to in public, and my guess is not much was agreed to in private. On trade, he apparently got a promise to have a 100-day plan to figure out what to do on trade but we won’t know the results of that for another three months. On the South China Sea, nothing publicly was said, but China continues to militarize its islands and tidal elevations. Certainly President Trump would have wished to have support for the strike on Syria, but the Chinese haven’t endorsed the attack in any meaningful way. One of the questions was whether Xi and Trump would be willing to continue the strategic and economic dialogue, and the answer to that seems to be yes, but they want to reconstitute it. The dialogue mechanism between the two countries will be focused on four important areas, and on balance, I think that’s okay, indeed, it is probably good. And apparently they also agreed that President Trump would come to China in the not-so-distant future.

I would note just one other thing, which is that when President Xi left Florida, he stopped in Alaska on the way home and met with the Alaskan governor. I think it is a good thing that China is building relationships (and particularly economic relations) with American states, rather than just the national government.

What can be determined about the Chinese perception of the summit based on reports in the Chinese media?

It’s difficult discerning real Chinese post-summit analysis from the way it’s portrayed in the media. Because Xi’s principal purpose was to look good in the media, barring some total fiasco, this was going to be the result. My guess is that behind the scenes, the Chinese were not happy to have been surprised that the United States chose (probably by force of circumstance, timing) to use their president as a stage prop to announce an attack on Syria — along with Russia, China has vetoed U.N. resolutions designed to punish Syria. Consequently, I would guess that the real perceptions are more sober and more critical than the public discussion. They were also very concerned about what the use of force in Syria means for Trump’s proclivity to use force in North Korea. It’s also interesting what wasn’t mentioned. There was no public mention of Taiwan, and no mention of the South China Sea. Apart from discussion about Syria using poison gas, it doesn’t appear that human rights were discussed in the context of the U.S.-China relationship. If that’s true, that’s a departure from past practice in which all presidents felt obliged to raise something about human rights.

How were the recent U.S. military strikes on Syria perceived by China? Some observers saw Trump’s action as a subtle message to China on North Korea. Do you agree with this assessment?

First of all, I don’t think the decision was made in order to send President Xi a message or to embarrass him. I think this was driven by simple revulsion against Assad’s crossing a red line that is a simple norm in international law. Especially against the background of President Obama’s refusal to enforce the red line, this was an opportunity for President Trump to distinguish himself from what is seen as Obama’s weakness. I think that’s probably 99% of why it happened — the rest is just a function of how long it takes for the military to get organized. I’m sure before the missiles went off the decks of the destroyers, they did think “wait, we’ve got the Chinese president here, and we’ve got the North Korean problem, and the Chinese haven’t been very helpful.” This sends a useful message to the Chinese to take us seriously, and it may also show that the U.S. can still act in the world and China can’t, even with its increased power. So I think it’s one of those things where the U.S. decided what to do in advance, and it had nothing to do with China. I think that before the missiles were launched, people saw some unintended positive consequences to the timing, and some probably saw the fact that President Xi was there and had to look like a potted plant as a plus.

What are the implications of the summit for future U.S.-China collaboration with respect to North Korea, and specifically the North Korean nuclear program?

Of course, it’s to be determined. We do not know what was said privately, and this is an area where what was said privately is a lot more important than what was said publicly, so there’s a lot of room to be wrong. But my basic feeling is that the Chinese have determined that the stability of North Korea, the regime, and the peninsula to be their number one, two, and three values: not counter-proliferation or denuclearization. I think that China considers the removal of nuclear weapons from North Korea to be an important and valuable goal, but not like the United States which considers it to be an essential goal. Our first, second, and third priorities are the removal of nuclear weapons, and stopping the danger of proliferation of weapons from North Korea. So the problem has always been that China will say that it shares the objective of denuclearization, but it's never been willing to do as much as the U.S. says it’s been willing to do. Also quite frankly, I think the U.S. is lying to itself. If we’re going to remove nuclear weapons from North Korea, the North Korean regime is not going to give them away because they see the weapons as an insurance policy that will prevent what happened to Gaddafi from happening to them. Short of regime change, North Korea will not get rid of its weapons. The U.S. has never attacked a nuclear state, and I don’t believe that with any sane American leadership, we would attack a nuclear state. Furthermore, our allies, Japan and South Korea, would not support an attack. When the U.S. says everything is on the table, implying that we would attack nuclear and missile sites, I don’t think in fact we will, and I don’t think the Chinese believe we will. We’re not being very honest with ourselves, and I think the Chinese probably know that. Ultimately, this latest set of events is unlikely to make much difference in Chinese behavior, except that they may want to sound a little tougher, and they may agree to something like reducing banking relations between China and North Korea, which has been a great concern to the U.S. Treasury Department among others. China may apply a little more pressure on North Korea, but they will not threaten the stability of the regime, and they will not countenance the use of force against North Korea. Ultimately the summit probably does not make as much a difference for Chinese behavior as some people would hope. Having said all this. Beijing is very frustrated with Pyongyang, there are voices in China calling for a tougher posture regarding North Korea, and at some point China could reach a point where its priorities change. I don’t expect that soon.

President Trump seems to have backed off from some of the harsh anti-China rhetoric of the campaign. Do you think that this trend will continue in the wake of last week’s summit?

It seems to me that you have to be very careful what you take seriously with President Trump; he’s done u-turns in several different areas. The most notable is the One China Policy. In December, he said it was up for negotiation, then China’s president refused to talk to him until he subscribed to the one China policy, which he now does. But then at Mar-a-lago, he doesn’t even talk about the one-China policy, or at least not publicly. He’s had his secretary of state talk about denying access to the islands in the South China Sea, and that has contradicted the words of his defense secretary, who has emphasized diplomacy. The only real promise he’s delivered on was leaving TPP — I think that was a tragic decision, but at least he did what he said he would do. During the campaign, he talked about boosting tariffs by 45% against the PRC for its unfair trade practices, but he has not done that. He said on day one, he was going to brand China as a currency manipulator, but he has not done that. I think there’s very low correspondence between what he said while he was running, and what he is doing now. If you look at changes in personnel at the White House, and the growing configuration and depth of his national security team, I would say radical departures will not be as likely as they would be if Navarro or Bannon were running things. Under the best of circumstances, there’s a low correspondence between what he says and what he does — it seems that he’s been pulled away from his most radical campaign decisions, he’s surrounding himself with an increasing density of responsible people, and I take it to be that he’s moving in a relatively more traditional direction.

The State Department’s role appears to have been significantly reduced in the first two months of Trump’s presidency while Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, reportedly wields enormous influence on China policy. What impact did these developments have on last week’s summit? In general, how will this affect future U.S.-China relations?

It was the conventional wisdom before the summit that Tillerson was in a weakened position. Tillerson was flying around in a small airplane with no staff, and he was making all kinds of basic mistakes, such as not meeting with U.S. embassy personnel in foreign countries or slighting various heads of state. Below Tillerson, there’s virtually nobody in the next four levels of the State Department with responsibility, so there were all the signals that the State Department was sort of an afterthought, and it was going to be the national security team and the generals picking up the slack. Although the State Department still has all the problems I just enumerated, Mr. Tillerson does seem to have been present in key meetings recently, and it seems like his foreign policy isn’t always being contradicted by the president and those around him. I would think Tillerson is a little more involved than we first thought, but also he has been pushed towards the margin. If Tillerson isn’t the authoritative voice of American foreign policy, then who is? Certainly the secretary of defense and increasingly, the head of the National Security Council, General McMaster, seem to be quite authoritative. The contenders for power seem to be the national security structure on one end, and Trump’s family on the other. I think it’s somewhere between surprising and terrifying that a 36 year old guy (Jared Kushner) with no diplomatic or government experience has suddenly been put in charge of reinventing the government, and in charge of relations with Israel, Mexico, and China. This is not a span of control that anyone could exercise, but it is clear that the president listens to him. The real question is: Is there an orderly foreign policy process and who is key in it? In that sense, I’m very concerned that there isn’t an orderly process in which the bureaucracies of the U.S. government are consulted in a meaningful way. This seems more like dynastic politics to me than a well-ordered bureaucratic process. I would say that Mr. Tillerson seems to be somewhat more authoritative than he seemed a few weeks ago, but that still leaves big areas of uncertainty. The State Department has been weakened quite a bit, and it’s quite worrying that Trump’s family, and in particular Kushner has been given such a huge span of responsibility. That said, it seems that Kushner and the president’s daughter, Ivanka, are somewhat moderating forces with respect to the president.

Trump’s effusive characterization of the summit seems at odds with the enormous challenges ahead in U.S.-China relations. Are there risks that he is raising excessive expectations?

Yes, everything Trump says is an exaggeration — almost every sentence he utters has multiple adjectives and superlatives. It almost seems like a political ponzi scheme, in which each excessive promise is succeeded by a new one, that leads everyone to forget the original promise. I think there is a danger that the excessive expectations may catch up with him, in which case, we’ll see the air go out of his balloon. How long that will take and what will happen in between is hard to foresee. In terms of challenges ahead, even before Mar-a-Lago, we committed to weapons sales to Taiwan, we have trade authorities ready to slap countervailing duties on China for steel, and we have not advanced a solution towards the North Korea problem. So all of the problems that existed before the summit are still there. Eventually all the chickens are going to come home to roost, and then we’re going to have a problem. If there were meaningful private conversations and progress is made on the 100-day plan, then maybe we’ll look back and say this did have positive outcomes, but at best, I have an open mind.

What should we watch for next in assessing the direction of U.S.-China relations? 

Things could go wrong in a number of areas, but if I had to pick one, it would be North Korea. That’s where the rubber may meet the road.

Michael Grouskay