What Does Trump Want? China Scours Twitter, Cocktail Parties for Clues

  • ‘It all comes down to who’s going to have the most influence’
  • Ties smoother after Trump tells Xi he’ll respect One-China

What Trump's Trade War with China Would Look Like

As a crowd of Midwesterners drank, danced and snacked on deep-fried Twinkies at the Iowa inaugural ball in the capital last month, an aide to Terry Branstad ushered a small group of Chinese dignitaries upstairs to a private room.

Terry Branstad

Photographer: Albin Lohr-Jones/Pool via Bloomberg

When they saw the man President Donald Trump picked to become ambassador to China, members of the group whipped out their smartphones for photos. Another flurry erupted when Branstad came downstairs, with about 30 Chinese guests jostling for access to the long-time state governor, according to three people with direct knowledge of the situation who asked not to be identified.

The scrum showed the extent to which Chinese officials and businessmen were scrambling to get to know anyone with influence over the newly sworn-in president. The outlook appeared grim: Trump had questioned the status of Taiwan, a red line for China, and signaled he was ready to start a trade war.

A month later, the relationship is on slightly firmer footing. Trump backed down on Taiwan, agreeing to respect the One-China policy after a phone call with President Xi Jinping. Ivanka Trump attended a Chinese Embassy event, following meetings between the ambassador and her husband Jared Kushner. And key cabinet members are finally interacting with Chinese counterparts.

Ivanka Trump attends the Chinese Embassy’s New Year reception on Feb. 1.

Photographer: Xinhua/Liu Yang via Getty Images

Trump Factions

Now one of the big questions is which view prevails in the White House: The more moderate voices of Branstad, Kushner and Pentagon chief James Mattis? Or China hardliners such as strategist Steve Bannon and trade adviser Peter Navarro?

“I don’t think that it’s stabilizing just yet because we don’t know where the center of gravity will be in U.S.-China policy,” said Paul Haenle, a China adviser to former President George W. Bush. “It all comes down to who’s going to have the most influence.”

China has been encouraged by a recent change in tone of the relationship, according to officials in Beijing who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private. The call between the presidents went smoothly, and China is ready to deal after Trump gave assurances over Taiwan, they said.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week the countries should increase communication and move forward on the basis of the Trump-Xi call. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin separately rang Chinese officials including People’s Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan.

Rex Tillerson and Wang Yi in Bonn on Feb. 17.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The Ask

Branstad, who has known Xi for almost three decades, is yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang referred to him in December as an “old friend of the Chinese people.”

One area where they may be able to come together is North Korea. China has called for new talks on its neighbor’s nuclear program after banning all coal imports to comply with United Nations resolutions. Trump has yet to respond.

Yet the bigger question for China is on the economic side, and they still have a problem: They aren’t sure what Trump wants.

Scouring Twitter

The Chinese “want to do a deal, but they just don’t know what the U.S. ‘ask’ is,” said Christopher K. Johnson, a former China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The precise detail a deal might include, he said, is “very much up in the air.”

Before becoming president, Trump publicly accused China of manipulating its currency, cheating at trade and stealing American manufacturing jobs. His specific demands for Beijing, however, remain unclear.   

Since the election, Chinese officials have gone to considerable lengths to decipher Trump’s positions on key issues. Employees working overtime in the weeks after his November election win trawled through Trump’s Twitter account for clues on his policy positions, using VPN software to access the blocked website, according to officials at two government departments with direct knowledge of the matter.

Another clue for China on Trump’s policies has been the public statements of his closest advisers. Navarro, for instance, has written books including “Death by China: Confronting the Dragon -- A Global Call to Action.”

Trade War

A trade war between the world’s two biggest economies shouldn’t be an option, China’s Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng said Tuesday at a briefing in Beijing.

“Cooperation benefits both, while confrontation can only hurt,” he said.

Business executives have provided China with another touch point with the Trump team. The president met Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., last month. The New York Times reported that Kushner met with Wu Xiaohui, chairman of Anbang Group Insurance Group Co Ltd., in November to finalize a business deal.

Beyond what Beijing describes as its nonnegotiable “core interests” -- such as Taiwan -- China views issues like trade, cyber security and international cooperation as open for negotiation, according to Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University. 

“China’s expects negotiations based on equality,” Jia said. “Trump says ‘America First’, but China should say ‘China First’ and we have to find common ground.”

China also has a luxury that Trump doesn’t have in negotiations: Time. The Communist Party has ruled China since 1949.

“They know we have elections every four years,” said Haenle, who is now director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “They may just decide to wait Donald Trump out.”

— With assistance by Peter Martin, Jennifer Jacobs, and Steven Yang

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