Xi Jinping’s advisors must be both scratching their heads in puzzlement and salivating at the likely menu for the two-day bro-fest starting later today in Donald Trump’s LaLaLand Florida retreat.
Hours before Xi’s arrival, the Washington Beltway was reeling under yet another shocker with news that Trump’s controversial eminence grise Steve Bannon had been ousted from the National Security Council. Just what sort of tea party is Trump throwing? And is he playing Mad Hatter to the Chinese president’s Alice?
It’s a fair rule in politics that what we see and hear is the polar opposite of what is true. Black is white; white is black. With Donald Trump, we appear to have entered a quantum realm, where everything is both black and white.
In this Wonderland, as the Red Queen put it in Lewis Carroll’s 150-year-old classic, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
Bannon’s out, Flynn’s out, McMaster is in. So where does that leave us on the burning issues of the hour: what should Donald do first? Bomb Pyongyang, declare a trade war with China or kick ass in the South China Sea?
The latest potboiler plot twist stirred up a fresh wave of burping from the Washington Swamp. Bryan Bender from Politico set the new narrative overnight: H.R. McMaster, the no-nonsense general brought in as National Security Advisor after Trump’s first pick Mike Flynn was ousted in February, has taken control and “intends to radically depart from the approach taken by Flynn and President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon.”
A meeting between McMaster and the 92-year-old Brent Scowcroft, who served in the role under Gerald Ford and George HW Bush, is the signal that the new broom is sweeping away the future and looking to the past. Trump’s directive also restores the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff along with the director of national intelligence as regular members of the council.
Citing an administration official with direct knowledge of the deliberations, Politico says McMaster also plans to cut the NSC’s staff, which had “ballooned” under Barack Obama. The plan, or “Scowcroft model,” de-politicizes the NSC and makes it (once again) an honest broker or referee of policies, not the driving force behind them.
“On paper it is the layered committees, an immensely orderly process,” Peter Feaver, on the elder Bush’s NSC and now a lecturer at Duke University, told Politico. “You decide everything at the lowest possible level, so only the really tough decisions get kicked upstairs … Everybody who has an equity gets to play and gets their say.”
So does this take some of the steam out of the Trump administration’s fiery anti-China rhetoric, just at the eleventh hour? Only this week, hawkish elements had been talking tough on North Korea (either China fixes it, or we’ll go it alone) and the South China Sea (Beijing is going to have to dismantle their fortifications, or else).
Trump himself has indicated he plans to play it tough with Xi, not like the wimp Obama, who played Tigger to Xi’s Pooh when they did the bro’ thing in California. Of course, he’s done that before when he suggested that the one-China policy was negotiable, only to back down on “that phone call” with Xi that set the stage for the coming summit.
In the black-is-white world of politics, the tough talk is likely just a function of Trump’s political and diplomatic weakness. Xi comes to the summit in a position of relative strength, though with his eye firmly fixed on his second term and the once every five years shakeup at the top of the ruling Communist Party.
The last thing China wants is to put its economic growth trajectory off course just when things seem to be going so well. China’s economy is showing signs of lurching back to life, Xi’s influence-building One Belt, One Road initiative has opened up a new universe of tributary states the ancient emperors could not have dreamed of, and the US is looking foolish and divided on the global stage.
Xi’s team will be looking to focus on Trump’s early campaign promise to put his dealmaking talents to work making America great again, Kerry Brown, a professor in Chinese politics at King’s College London told NPR’s All Things Considered podcast.
“The Chinese quite like the idea of a dealmaker because they are looking for a deal,” he said. “They want to deal with very tangible things: trade flows, investment flows, intellectual property.”
Brown said he expected the Chinese to emerge as the winners from the summit because they’ve figured out Trump “is a conceited man” and have deep experience in how to play on the vanity of leaders.
Of course, Xi should bear in mind another of the truisms of Wonderland:
“I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”