As he visits China, President Trump must be wary of President Xi Jinping’s attempts to distract him.
Last night, after Xi pampered Trump with praise, pomp, and pageantry, the U.S. president was obviously wowed.
On behalf of @FLOTUS Melania and I, THANK YOU for an unforgettable afternoon and evening at the Forbidden City in Beijing, President Xi and Madame Peng Liyuan. We are looking forward to rejoining you tomorrow morning! https://t.co/ma0F7SHbVU Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2017
Looking forward to a full day of meetings with President Xi and our delegations tomorrow. THANK YOU for the beautiful welcome China! @FLOTUS Melania and I will never forget it! pic.twitter.com/sQoUWIGAiQ Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2017
I'm glad the president is having fun, but he must not lose sight of his crucial mission in Beijing: getting China to alter North Korea's behavior.
This is relevant because Xi is likely trying to distract Trump away from his mission. While Xi may like Trump personally, he didn't become the strongest Chinese leader since Mao by being a nice guy. He got there by being resolute, focused, and highly ambitious. In the same vein, Xi will seek to manipulate Trump's apparent insecurities if doing so can advance his own agenda.
That explains why Xi has thrown such an extravagant display for Trump. He wants the president to look at the deity-like treatment he is receiving and contrast it with the exceptionally-brusk snub that President Barack Obama received on his final Sept. 2016 visit to China. The Chinese, like every other major power, know that Trump resents the treatment he receives in much of the U.S. and international media and that he places a high premium on loyalty. Their extravaganza is thus intended to make Trump think, "Finally, I've found a nation that respects me as I should be respected."
But let's be clear, this isn't about Trump's feelings — it's about pushing Trump away from tougher actions against Chinese interests.
As such, Trump's best response would be to enjoy himself, just not too much.
After all, if he's seduced into the dragon's cave, Trump risks jeopardizing the foundation of his national security strategy. As I noted on Tuesday, Trump’s optimistic words about the prospect of a breakthrough with Kim Jong Un cannot be viewed in a microcosm. Instead, they reflect Trump’s escalating diplomatic and military pressure towards China and North Korea. That pressure intends to tell Xi that if he does not do more to alter Kim Jong Un’s behavior, the U.S. will make China’s independent interests suffer. This Trump strategy is well-designed and has every chance of success.
But only if it is employed.
Ultimately, there's no reason why two leaders cannot get along personally even if their political views are in stark disagreement. Just consider Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong! Still, Trump must accept that his power now flows from the U.S. rather than from his personal accomplishments up until now. And it is the interests of the U.S. that must define his strategy.