A Few Thoughts on President Trump’s Visit to Asia by Richard Mueller

Colleagues: Richard Mueller brings decades of experience in the Asian theater during a distinguished career in the State Department, including as American Consul General in Hong Kong, followed by an education career running three different international/independent schools.  

 Richard has sent me a thoughtful–and concerning–email on the eve of President Trump’s upcoming Asian trip. Obviously, Trump’s time in China will be the most consequential of his planned stops on this trip, especially in view of heightened US-China tensions over North Korea, trade, the South China Sea, and numerous other critical issues.

Worth the read:

Hi Ty,

I wanted to share a few thoughts on the occasion of President Trump’s visit to Asia (and get a few things off my chest!).

I remain deeply worried about this administration’s overall approach to governing. It’s dangerous (e.g. North Korea; not recognizing how malevolent are Russia’s objectives; gutting of State Department talent which needs to be paired with our economic and military strength), and domestically it is driving us apart as Americans.

My immediate worry is Trump’s visit to China.

Now that Xi Jinping has obviously consolidated power unto himself (for however long he holds on to it), the propaganda machinery is cranking out verbiage of how strong and wonderful China’s communist and historic governance systems are; how Xi and China love the world and will work to make all peoples around the world better off, etc.etc.

Trump’s arrival in Beijing right after the 19th Party Congress is perfect for China: The United States president is coming to congratulate Xi and to endorse China’s central role in world affairs.  Subtext:  As has been a historical pattern, inferior states visit China to pay respects to the emperor and to China’s pre-eminent position in the world.

The visit couldn’t be better timed for Xi to adopt an attitude of noblesse oblige!

Xi will show utmost hospitality and create an atmosphere of welcome, as China does so well.  He also will assuredly show Trump shiny objects that dazzle  He will engage in head fakes to throw the US delegation off whatever game plan it has.  Xi knows how to do this.  The script is already written.

Trump quite possibly will accept “deals” to show his visit was a success, but the deals will be less obviously strategic or of longer-term significance. They are likely to be around some of those shiny objects.  (Candidly, I hope I’m wrong and Xi, for example, might open wide many Chinese economic sectors, unveil a tough, joint, effective approach to North Korea, agree to talks to de-militarize the South China Sea, agree to a bilateral investment agreement that includes US objectives, and make strong statements respecting the constructive US role in the world and China’s desire for cooperation, but I won’t count on it.)

I wish I could discern the administration’s overall strategic vision of how we deal with this enormous dragon that wants to eat our lunch–and then our dinner.  How well has the administration prepared for this trip?  How will we ensure that strategic goals and negotiated agreements protect our vital interests?  We don’t seem to be going about it effectively or coherently. Where are the public discussions and diplomacy the American people deserve to set the stage for continuing to develop this important relationship?

To be clear, I would like to see the Chinese people continue to improve their living standards.  They’ve made remarkable progress.  Let’s not be bashful about reminding China and others that sustained US policy of the last four decades–such as keeping our markets open to trade and investment – also has been a critical component of China’s growth. (I was part of the US delegation that negotiated the US-China trade agreement in 1979. To move the bilateral relationship forward within the constraints of the Jackson-Vanik provisions applying to non-market economies, the US accepted Chinese promises that arguably still have not been fully implemented, for example, on protection of intellectual property.)

I want to see a constructive if competitive US-China relationship. But I worry about the hard-fisted, top down, authoritarian approach of China’s leaders who justify their actions as creating social cohesion and bringing the country together to again be a strong nation.  And I worry about our leadership’s weak approaches in engaging with them.

Does the president understand:

– We need a constructive, stable long-term relationship with China; we also need to be tough and resolute in all our dealings.

– China is determined to undermine US interests and weaken our resolve to stand up for what we believe in.  They don’t want a collapse of our economy or society; they do want us playing a smaller role on the world stage thus allowing China to move closer to center-stage–its rightful historic place.

– Virtually all Chinese organs of the state and private sector will follow the dictates of the authoritarian government. They will not always wish us well.  Even private Chinese companies and Chinese billionaires will not easily say no if asked to engage in cyber operations, to steal technology, to exclude foreign companies from holding controlling interests in Chinese firms, to buy into key US firms, or to seal the great internet firewall, etc. The long-arms of the Chinese state increasingly extend around the world.  

– Foreigners will likely find it harder and harder successfully to do business in China unless they are in a sector of particular interest to China’s government such as military modernization, key industries, or technology sectors.  I felt the increased pressure and saw close up the developing trends while running an international school during my recent three years in Shanghai. 

– For decades we’ve been working for a more open China in the hope that it would “play by the rules” of the post-World War II Order.  Well, China joined the Order, but we now see it has chosen a course of less openness combined with rapid moves to take center stage, re-writing rules as it can to favor itself and weaken others in the process.  Many of these international rules and organizations need to be updated; can that be done in an atmosphere of cooperation for the good of all?

So we’re back to realpolitik!  We shouldn’t be surprised that China is pursuing its interests, but we can and must look closely at how we vigorously protect ourselves, our beliefs, and our friends and allies.  Tough, enlightened, sustained diplomacy, paired with economic and military strength is vital.  

We have enormous strengths as a nation starting with our beliefs in democracy, liberty, rule of law, and openness.  We need not feel defensive or lose our nerve. We should work for other countries’ success also.  At the same time we must have courage, come together as Americans, and be smart and clear-eyed in our policies.

All those things should start at the top.

One more practical observation:  When he arrives in Asia, Trump will be suffering 14 or more hours of jet lag, and we know how body rhythms react.  Will he be clear and sharp in all his meetings and decision making?  It’s just plain dangerous to get off the plane and start negotiating immediately, even though many negotiators do so.

Richard Mueller is a retired 32-year Senior Foreign Service Officer who served in numerous Asian assignments including Vietnam during the war, China in the 1970’s at the US Liaison Office in Beijing, and as American Consul General in Hong Kong in the run up to 1997. He was a Deputy Executive Secretary under Secretary George Shultz and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs under Secretary James Baker.  Subsequently he served as head of school of Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, Hong Kong International School, and recently as head of Shanghai American School.  

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