President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced over $250 billion in deals between American and Chinese companies on Thursday.
Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan hailed the accomplishment as “truly a miracle.” Critics immediately began picking the deals apart as less than meets the eye.
Boeing, General Electric, and Qualcomm were among the U.S. companies securing multi-billion-dollar deals in the announcement, which the White House hopes will go a long way toward addressing complaints about America’s trade deficit with China. One of the deals is an $83 billion, 20-year Chinese investment in shale gas and chemical manufacturing in West Virginia, a state that strongly supported Trump in 2016.
Of course, Donald Trump was among the loudest voices in warning about those deficits, long before his aborted 2012 presidential run and successful 2016 effort. He has not stopped. Not long after the $250 billion “miracle’ was announced, Trump called on Beijing to “immediately address the unfair trade practices that drive” the “shockingly” large deficit.
“But I don’t blame China,” Trump added, in an unusual aside. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.”
This was widely interpreted by Trump critics as the president letting China off the hook, although it could also be read as a backhanded insult, especially since President Xi was sitting onstage next to him when Trump said it. “I don’t blame you for robbing us” is not exactly complimentary. It is also consistent with Trump’s oft-stated belief that America’s leadership should be driving the hardest possible bargains to benefit their citizens, just as leaders of other countries tend to act in their own national interest.
It remains to be seen just how hard a bargain Trump drove in China. “U.S. businesses still have many long-standing concerns to complain about, including unfettered access to the China market, cybersecurity and the growing presence of China’s ruling Communist Party inside foreign firms,” Reuters reports, citing complaints about the lack of “structural reforms” in the agreements disclosed thus far.
Other critical observers complained the details of the deals were vague, the announcements were non-binding, the actual contracts signed later might be smaller than some of the deals announced during Trump’s visit, the number of U.S. jobs created by some of the deals is questionable, and Beijing has a history of double-counting old orders to juice up trade numbers.
“Many of the contracts signed Thursday appeared to represent purchases that Chinese mobile phone makers, airlines and other customers would have made anyway, but were saved to be announced during Trump’s visit,” the Associated Press complained.
Another criticism raised about Trump’s visit is that his flattery of Xi Jinping—now a virtual dictator after the recent Communist Party Congress showered him with honors and new authority—was far in excess of Xi’s response, which largely consisted of politely restating the same old Chinese talking points. The New York Times accused Trump of “ceding global leadership to China” by shunning “multilateralism and global governance” while Xi “increasingly embraces them.”
An obvious explanation for Trump’s chummy attitude toward Xi is that he regards Chinese help with resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis as all-important. “China can fix this problem quickly and easily, and I am calling on China and your great president to hopefully work on it very hard. If he works on it very hard there’s no doubt it will happen,” Trump said.
This is an understandable approach given the severity of the North Korean crisis and China’s undoubted influence over the regime in Pyongyang, but it runs the risk of playing into China’s hand and effectively validating the long and dangerous game Beijing has played with its psychotic client state. If all other U.S. priorities are ceded to China in a bid to bring North Korea under control, then China will have been rewarded for threatening the world with a feral attack dog for the past few decades. And then the final indignity might be China deciding it is unable to force dictator Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear missile ambitions after all.
Still, the overall impression of the “miracle” deals conveyed by Reuters was positive. “Generally the sense was that this is all a good thing, and that’s great. Now let’s see what really happens and whether or not the agreements signed during this trip can become a basis for a better bilateral trade relationship going forward,” said Shanghai lawyer Gentry Sayad, who was in Beijing for the event.
”President Trump is a clever man and he is now looking for global investors, including Chinese investors. This will help in U.S. economy in infrastructure, ports, bridges, railways, and roads – areas where the U.S. is weak and China has advantages. China can expand its investments in these areas,” Xu Hongcai of the China Center for International Economic Exchanges told CNBC, offering an upbeat appraisal that might not do much to mollify critics of the mega-deal.
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