Last Friday, for the first time ever, the Chinese military landed a nuclear-capable bomber on a disputed island in the South China Sea. The next day the Trump administration made a surprise announcement that they were calling off the trade war.
We hear a lot about Trump’s bizarre affection for Putin, but his relationship with China and its President Xi Jinping is equally strange. And considering the fact there’s an obvious explanation for Trump’s Putinophilia, we have no similar theory for his public, pathological, and puerile fondness for Xi. For example:
It’s fundamentally and possibly historically weird for the head of state of one superpower to call the head of state of an demonstrably adversarial superpower his “good friend.” Trump also fawns over Xi constantly, despite getting no such love in return—much as it’s been with Putin. But unlike with Russia, Trump himself has repeatedly recognized China as an adversary. He made sticking it to China a pillar of his campaign, promising to officially label the country a “currency manipulator” and even at one point likening their economic policy to rape. He has not kept this promise. At one point he even blamed China for inventing global warming. Yet the love pump gushes on.
In light of recent (and not-so-recent) reports about Trump’s pay-to-play relationship with China, this behavior is stranger still. When you stack it all together, especially the contradictions between what Trump says and what he does, it’s hard to dismiss the possibility that the Chinese have some kind of compromising information on the President of the United States.
For instance, we’ve got the recent report that the Chinese government just invested half a billion (with a B) in a Trump-licensed theme park in Indonesia as part of its massive “One Belt, One Road” international infrastructure and trade initiative. And the one on the Kushner family’s backdoor investment-for-visa deals, which invited investigations from federal prosecutors and the SEC. Additionally, China manufactures tons of Trump-brand goods, including some of Ivanka Trump’s shoe line, which got caught in a lie when Chinese activists were imprisoned after reporting on conditions at one of the first daughter’s factories there. Juxtapose this with his many policy flip-flops, including not labeling China a currency manipulator and waffling on tariffs and the trade war.
Most intriguing, though, are the claims in the Steele dossier alleging that the Trump camp was happy that the media focused on Russia because it meant there’d be less scrutiny of Trump’s corrupt deals in China “and other emerging countries.”
So here’s a quick but close breakdown of Trump’s contradictory relationship with China, and what might be driving it.
The Great Firewall
Look at that last tweet cited above, the one that thanks Xi for “his enlightenment on intellectual property and technology transfers.” About a month later, Trump followed up with this:
It’s hard to ignore the correlation between those two data points. As many people pointed out immediately, Trump’s pledge to help Chinese telecom giant ZTE is a foolish and alarming decision, one almost certainly made without consulting his national security or foreign policy teams. It’s a common knowledge that Chinese telecoms, especially ZTE, are agents for Chinese intelligence and use their technology and networks to gather information on Americans and share it with the Chinese government. What’s more, the U.S. hit ZTE with sanctions for this behavior, and the company violated sanctions against both Iran and North Korea by selling them equipment. Even Republicans didn’t shy from expressing their concern about Trump’s surprise plan. Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican, told Business Insider:
With that company, they’ve got a record—a record that’s not a good one. They’ve violated sanctions against us with Iran and North Korea. So I just think that we have to be very very cautious dealing with them or dealing them any kind of favorable treatment because they don’t deserve it. This is a company that poses national security risks to the United States.
GOP Senate Finance Committee member Rob Portman said he’s “in the dark” about any proposed deal with ZTE and the Chinese government. And Senator Marco Rubio told Fox News the idea was “a mistake,” adding “ZTE has nothing to do with trade. Nothing.” He even took to Twitter to call it “crazy”:
Trump’s own Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, said last year that “ZTE misled the Department of Commerce. Instead of reprimanding ZTE staff and senior management, ZTE rewarded them. This egregious behavior cannot be ignored.”
Again, a month prior Trump cited, publicly, that he’d been not only receptive but thankful for a briefing on the importance of Chinese technology from his good friend, the President of China. I’m almost positive Xi offered Trump a slightly different story about ZTE than the U.S. intelligence community did.
Perhaps weirder still, not only would Trump have sold out his own government, which he’s by now made a routine of, he also would have turned his back on major promises he made to his base during the campaign. This policy inverts his long-running narrative of China stealing American jobs; now he says it’s America’s responsibility to create more jobs in China.
But this didn’t happen in a vacuum…
One month after Xi enlightened Trump about the wonders of Chinese technology, AFP reported that the Chinese government was investing up to $500 million in an Indonesian theme park that will feature Trump-brand hotels, residencies, and a golf course. Two days after that loan was announced, Trump tweeted his support for ZTE, pledging to use the U.S. Department of Commerce to help the company “get back into business, fast.”
Though the Chinese government-owned investment companies won’t be directly involved in building or financing the Trump properties, the theme park is reported to be critical to the larger development. What’s more, the size of the investment — half a billion — comprises half the development’s overall budget, meaning that even though there might not be a direct investment in the Trump Organization (which would be easily traced), the success or failure of the Trump properties in the development is up to the Chinese.
AFP reported it wasn’t clear “to what extent the Trump Organization was involved in the decision to include Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the project.”
It’s difficult not to connect those dots.
It’s also bigger than a theme park. The massive development project is part of China’s “One Belt, One Road” global infrastructure initiative, which aims to link the Chinese economy with economies in Asia, Africa, and Europe through the construction and renovation of ports, highways, and industrial centers.
Which brings us to the TPP.
Trump swore throughout his campaign that he would withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a multinational trade agreement that included China—and he did. But even though both parties criticized the deal, the move to withdraw doesn’t translate exactly into taking an aggressive stance on China. It’s more reasonable to read it the opposite way: In isolating the U.S., Trump gave up a good amount of influence and handed China—the world’s second-largest economy—the chance to take the lead in international trade. China has the partnership, the merits of which are definitely up for debate, where the U.S. now must strike a bunch of independent agreements. In the end, then, the TPP makes things easier for other countries to trade with China, but our isolation makes it tougher for them to trade with us. The incentive has flipped.
But will that matter to regular Americans, and when? At some point we’re going to see higher prices on imported consumer goods, and though the idea is to bring more jobs back home, we’re simultaneously shrinking the export market (and demand) for the products and services those new American jobs will produce.
Bottom line here is that China loves Trump’s economic moves. He’s literally handing them the world.
Of course Trump then tried to get tough with China by launching a surprise trade war, but that strategy fell apart after a month and a half. That, though, brings us to the military and the first sentence of this piece.
The South China Sea is home to several clusters of islands, whose ownership is disputed by six countries. China insists that the islands, critical to a major regional trade route, are rightfully theirs, a claim it says dates back several centuries. The country’s increasing economic and military might only makes them more upset, especially because it wants to use the islands as bases to project military power further in Southeast Asia. This strategic value is so important that as an end-around China has resorted to literally building its own islands on top of reefs in the area.
In this context, we learned last week that China for the first time landed a bomber on Woody Island, one of the natural islands. China has landed fighter jets on disputed islands before, but never a bomber, and never a nuclear-capable aircraft. This might seem trivial to us, but to the U.S. military it’s a big deal and a challenge, even if an indirect one. From Woody Island these bombers can reach pretty much all of Southeast Asia, and given this movement they’ll likely soon deploy bombers to nearby islands from which they can reach Australia and U.S. bases in Guam.
Then the next day the Trump administration dropped the trade war, a concession that China’s economy has reached more or less equal footing with the U.S. (That’s in terms of bilateral leverage, not size.) And though the military provocation almost certainly isn’t entirely responsible for us backing down—China’s tariffs put the screws to Trump country—the correlation is important. After all, the Chinese deployed the bomber on the same day the U.S. changed leadership in the Pacific fleet. That’s no accident. At the very least we should have waited a few days to call off the dogs.
There’s so far been no substantive reaction from the U.S. Beyond ending the trade war.
There’s another element here.
GOP congressional members have nominated Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize in bringing an end to the Korean conflict, even though Trump hasn’t met with Kim Jong Un yet, and the terms of a future deal are still a matter of debate.
Truth is, Trump has been at the mercy of China here. It was recently reported that, according to a U.S. official, Trump’s offer to support ZTE was actually incentive to get China to do more in our favor with North Korea negotiations. The same report says Trump was upset to learn that Xi and Kim had their first meeting in secret, and that Xi hadn’t told him about it. That probably explains his jealous tweet the next day trying to push his own role in front of the meeting. This was dis number two.
Here’s a timeline.
April 10: Trump profuses indebtedness to Xi for technological enlightenment
April 27: Trump tweets thanks to Xi for help on North Korea
May 3: Trump tweets he and Xi will always have a “good (great) relationship”
May 8: We get reports that Xi and Kim just met for two days in secret
May 8, later: Trump speaks with Xi about North Korea
May 11: $500 million Chinese investment
May 13: Trump tweets that he’s working with Xi on a plan to help out ZTE
Trump isn’t exactly on solid ground. It looks like he’s getting played. After all, Xi has from the beginning tried to influence Trump’s North Korea policy. When the two first met at Mar-a-Lago last April, Xi gave Trump a history lesson on North Korea. Trump remarked that he at first thought China could take care of the North Korea problem, but after listening to Xi for about ten minutes he realized it “wasn’t so easy.”
This is weird in that Trump said he and then-President Obama discussed North Korea at length in their meeting after Trump’s election. He’d also by that point had top-secret briefings and national security meetings about North Korea for a few months with his own team. President Xi, whom Trump had until then never met, has an outsize influence on him. Over that same weekend, Trump famously told Xi over a “beautiful” piece of chocolate cake what was at the time a secret, that he’d just launched a missile strike on Syria to atone for the gassing of Syrian children, whom Trump had also described as “beautiful.”
And when it comes to North Korea, Trump has a history of yielding to China, and Xi by name:
MAGA in China
But what do we make of this bizarre back-and-forth? Quick recap: First, despite Trump’s rhetoric about China, the things he says don’t square with his actions in office; his policies have so far all helped China. He’s also failed to follow through on some of his promises, and he’s reversed others. And China seems to see an opportunity to step into a leadership role in terms of trade and in negotiating an end to the Korean conflict. In the latter, it seems we’re getting pushed around, so that Trump is in a position where he needs to sweeten the pot for China, including lifting sanctions on a national security threat. Ironically, that company violated sanctions against North Korea.
Back to the dossier. Steele said that one of his sources—someone close to both Trump and campaign manager Paul Manafort—alluded to corrupt business deals in China.
It’s well known that a number of Trump Organization products are manufactured in China. These include Trump eyeglasses, Trump ties, Trump suits, Trump dress shirts, and several Trump Home products such as, per the Guardian “mirrors, ceramic vases, wall decorations, kitchen items and lighting fixtures.”
In November, the same month Trump traveled to China and met there with Xi, the Trump Organization started selling new products made in China and Bangladesh.
Hypocrisy isn’t evidence of corruption, but there are other more troubling connections. For instance, Trump applied for trademarks in China in April 2016 — during the election. Those trademarks were granted the following June. Then there’s the coincidence that China granted Ivanka Trump several trademarks the same day her dad first met with President Xi. The following month, China detained three activists who blew the whistle on labor conditions in Ivanka’s factory operations in the country. In response to that scandal, Ivanka’s company said they’d not used the factory for months, a statement soon revealed to be a lie: They had still scheduled shoe shipments. After that, AP reported that records about Ivanka’s business operations in the country had begun to disappear, including tracking data about the identities of companies involved in 90 percent of shipments. According to the AP, it’s become unclear just who Ivanka is doing business with in China.
Her spouse, meanwhile, in keeping with tradition, almost immediately got himself in trouble. Last May, the same month the three activists were arrested, it was reported that the Kushner family pitched an investment-for-visas scheme to wealthy Chinese investors. The Kushners were trying to secure financing for a couple of skyscrapers under construction in New Jersey, and offered prospective investors the possibility of receiving US green cards in return for their money. The Kushners apologized, then immediately did it again. The SEC is now investigating Jared Kushner’s company for the deal. Kushner’s company also tried to strike a deal with another Chinese investor to help save star-crossed 666 Fifth Avenue from bankruptcy. Was it a potentially corrupt deal? Well, Kushner also sought backing for 666 Fifth from a premier Qatari sheikh.
Though no reporting has fully detailed the extent of the Trump family’s deals in China, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. There’s clearly something there, but we don’t know how much. Considering the pathological secrecy of the Chinese government, we might never know how deep the ties run, but considering what’s at stake here—and especially today, with the Korean summit in a few weeks—we need to know if the President is making decisions in our best interest, or just in his.