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U.S. Allies Fear Trump Will Pull a Nixon in China

7 Nov 2017 6:56 am
By Andrew Browne 

SHANGHAI--In a pointed message ahead of Donald Trump's first presidential swing through Asia, a Chinese shipyard launched the region's largest dredger.

The 17,000-ton Tiankun, dubbed the "magic island-maker," can rip holes in the seabed roughly equivalent to three Olympic-size swimming pools every hour and signals a new phase in China's South China Sea construction that intimidates neighbors and directly challenges U.S. regional leadership.

It is also a reminder that high on Chinese President Xi Jinping's wish list for the trip is an acknowledgment of China's enlarged ambitions in its own backyard vividly symbolized by airstrips, ports and military facilities built atop half-submerged reefs in the world's busiest commercial waterway.

In Beijing, Mr. Trump will seek help on North Korea, his main priority, as well as trade. China sees an opportunity for deal-making.

The question for Asian governments anxious about an impulsive U.S. president weakened by investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 election and looking for a foreign-policy success: Will he be tempted to strike a bargain?

Mr. Xi has pushed for what he calls a "new type of great power relations" with the U.S., an innocuous-sounding slogan but one freighted with deep implications, not least that Washington would start treating China as an equal and cede ground on its territorial demands in the South China Sea and East China Sea. The arrangement could put Taiwan in play as another of China's "core interests" to be accommodated.

Such diplomacy would essentially create a G-2: the U.S. and China carving up the globe between them.

Barack Obama rebuffed the idea as endangering U.S. friendships and alliances in the region.

In recent days, the Trump White House has signaled it will push back, too. Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, has spoken of a "free and open Indo-Pacific region" as a counter to a Sino-centric order. There's talk of reviving a more formal grouping of the region's big democracies--the U.S., Japan, Australia and India--which to China looks like a strategy to contain its advance.

And the U.S. Navy has stepped up freedom-of-navigation patrols around the artificial islands.

Still, China regards Mr. Trump as a businessman, a mercurial one but in the end open to pragmatic compromises. Chinese diplomats work on the U.S. president through his family. Jared Kushner opened the door for them to the inner circle. On the day she and her father were meeting Mr. Xi in Mar-a-Lago earlier this year, Ivanka Trump scored a breakthrough in an application to obtain Chinese trademarks for a line of handbags and spas.

The outreach has paid dividends for Beijing. Mr. Trump is gushing about his Chinese counterpart, telling Lou Dobbs on the Fox Business Network after Mr. Xi's elevation to Mao-like status at last month's party congress that "some people might call him the king of China."

To the "barbarian handlers" around Mr. Xi, all this sets up well for Mr. Trump's visit to Beijing. They inherit an imperial tradition of statecraft that bought off hostile tribes along the borders with a mixture of flattery and baubles.

Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to Washington, has promised Mr. Trump a "state visit-plus." He knows that the grandeur of the Chinese capital has a way of warping the perspective of visiting U.S. leaders. Nixon was star-struck by the tyrant Mao. In engineering his "opening to China" he not only shocked Taiwan but went behind Japan's back, giving America's closest Asian ally almost no notice of the historic shift--a point that rankled in Tokyo for decades, and helps explain Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's eagerness to court Mr. Trump today.

Mr. Abe's solicitous personal diplomacy, including golf and burgers over the weekend, reflects a long fear in Japan that Washington will do another deal with Beijing over its head to reshape the region, as well as suspicion of an "America First" president hostile to multilateral trade arrangements and skeptical of alliances.

Expect Mr. Xi to deliver a few helpful gestures on North Korea at the summit. Mr. Trump has been effective at persuading Mr. Xi to sign on to tough U.N. sanctions. Additional Chinese moves, however, won't go far enough to collapse the Pyongyang regime. Bottom line: Chinese oil will keep flowing.

Anticipate, too, a raft of business deals for Mr. Trump's CEO entourage, although U.S. executives on the ground expect few breakthroughs on structural problems. For instance, Mr. Xi is unlikely to unwind the mercantilist policies of his first term that are increasingly shutting U.S. tech companies out of China.

Beijing is deft at mixing soft diplomacy, like commercial giveaways, with the harder variety. The Tiankong dredger embodies Beijing's strategy of pushing Chinese interests by any means short of war.

Either way, Mr. Xi is likely to calculate that time is on his side. His newfound stature effectively makes him a Chinese leader for life. Mr. Trump's hold on office is more tenuous.

Write to Andrew Browne at andrew.browne@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 07, 2017 01:56 ET (06:56 GMT)

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