US President Donald Trump has criticized China for unfair trade practices, classified the country as a "threat to the world" and described leader Xi Jinping as an enemy.
However, he recently congratulated the ruling Communist Party for 70 years – commemorated with a US military display – and said his relationship with Xi is "very incredible" despite the "little fight" over trade.
Although the US-China relationship has been difficult over the past 18 months, many in China's power halls expect the US leader to win a second term next year. That's because, while it may seem unpredictable, Chinese officials are betting that Trump's transactional approach to politics may be preferable to a more principled president, whether Democratic or Republican.
"Trump is a businessman. We can only pay him with money and the problems will be solved," said a politically connected person in Beijing, on condition of anonymity to speak openly about sensitive international issues. "As long as we have money, we can buy it. That's why we prefer it to Democrats."
Trump's unfiltered tweets help China negotiate because it is "easy to read," said Long Yongtu, a former deputy foreign minister and representative of China during his 2001 World Trade Organization membership, at a conference. in Shenzhen this month. "We want Trump to be reelected; we would be happy to see that happen."
Another influential voice in Beijing, Tsinghua University professor of international relations Yan Xuetong recently wrote that, thanks to Trump, China was facing "the best strategic opportunity" since the Cold War.
"Trump has undermined the US-led alliance system, which has improved China's international environment," said Yan in the Southern Review.
Governments around the world, from allies like Australia and South Korea to opponents like Iran and North Korea, had to adjust to Trump's idiosyncratic style.
But the Chinese were among the most shocked by the US leader's approach. When Trump took office, Communist Party officials thought he was only interested in a quick and 'tweetable' victory, analysts said. But the party underestimated Trump's determination to rebalance trade relations and make Beijing a public enemy among US voters. Chinese leaders also acknowledge that they underestimated the extent to which China's behavior has become a bipartisan concern in Washington, according to people who have met senior officials.
Almost two years after the trade war and three years since the beginning of his rule, Chinese authorities have learned the art of Trump negotiations.
"Trump is not ideologically opposed to China. He does not talk about human rights, Xinjiang and the South China Sea," the Beijing source said, referring to the disputed maritime claims and the region in northwest China, where authorities detained them. one million muslims.
A Democratic president would certainly take a broader approach to China. Candidates gave a strident tone to the debate last week, and several promised to increase pressure on China for its human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong.
Trump does not seem concerned about these issues, said Elizabeth Economy, director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the free and open Indo-Pacific, these are all things that President Trump doesn't usually address," Economy said. "If I am right in my assumption that he doesn't care about these issues because he never talks about them, then he will be more willing to negotiate them in discussions with the Chinese."
As if to prove that point, Trump said on Friday he would be willing to veto legislation aimed at supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong – despite support for the nearly unanimous House and Senate law – to pave the way for a trade agreement with China.
None of this means China will make Trump easier next year.
There has been no tangible progress on the "first phase" trade deal that the US leader hoped to sign this month.
In October, Trump said the two sides were on the verge of a "very substantial deal" under which China would double its annual purchases of US agricultural products to more than $ 40 billion. But he said last week that China was not "reaching the level I want".
Many analysts expect a "first phase" deal to be reached, mainly because many of the provisions are in China's interest. A virus has decimated the pig population in China, the world's largest consumer of pork, encouraging officials to look abroad and other types of meat to meet demand. And the "first phase" deal looks a lot like the deal in April – minus the parties that angered Beijing.
Still, China's leaders have no incentive to move fast, said Paul Haenle, Asia's consultant to the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, who is now at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. "Why would we grant the US a comprehensive agreement in an election year?" Haenle said, posing the question that Beijing officials are asking themselves. "If we give them so much now and by 2020, what will we have to give Trump in his second term?"
The trade dispute will be more difficult for Beijing if and when negotiations continue for phases two and three. That's where negotiators need to discuss structural issues that have long bothered the United States, such as China's practice of forcing foreign investors to surrender their technology, intellectual property theft and subsidies to state-owned companies.
"So right now, there is a risk, especially as we head towards election year 2020, that the Trump government will settle for a cursory agreement to claim a victory," said Alison Szalwinski, vice president of research at the National Office. Asian Research "And that could end up with incentives to talk about long-term issues in the bilateral relationship."
This should be of particular interest to Congress, where there are about 25 different bills and resolutions related to China.
Congress and some parts of the government, such as the Defense and State departments, have had a relatively free hand to criticize China on issues like Xinjiang and expansionism in the South China Sea, as long as they do not conflict with Trump's priorities, he said. Economy "But if trade talks progress and the president decides to declare victory at some point, the window for such action will be closed," she said.
For while Trump thinks of four more years, Xi is thinking of many more than that. The 66-year-old man abolished term limits, effectively allowing him to continue leading China for the rest of his life.
This means that Xi can agree to a "first phase" deal to play for a while without having to offer more.
"If he retires for eight, nine months to a year, it's no big deal for him because I think he sees himself as China's leader in the next 10 to 20 years, if not more," said Victor Shih, a China expert. at the University of California San Diego. "So he's definitely playing a much longer game than the president of the United States right now."