By Lee Seong-hyon
There has been speculation that U.S. President Donald Trump has been ignoring Chinese Communist leader Xi Jinping. Since his inauguration two weeks ago, Trump has spoken with nearly 20 world leaders on the phone, including acting Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn. He also spoke with Japan's Shinzo Abe. Yet he has yet to speak with Xi, the leader of the world's second largest economy.
Xi sent a congratulatory message to Trump. Trump received it, but didn't respond to it. In an apparent snub, Trump didn't even return the friendly gesture by arranging a courtesy telephone call with Xi.
What is interesting is that Xi doesn't seem dejected by that. Rather, China has been continuing to send amicable signs to Trump, in spite of the setback. It even directed its media outlets not to criticize Trump on the occasion of his inauguration and instructed them to reflect sanitized government texts, as carried by the official Xinhua News Agency, for the occasion.
All along, Beijing has been having a hard time in pinning down Trump. China initially underestimated him as an easy man to deal with, based on his political naiveté. Intercepting a U.S. Navy underwater drone in the South China Sea was an early test for Trump's mettle. Trump's response was: "Let them keep it!"
When Xi said upon Trump's election, "Cooperation is the only choice," it was reported that the latter took offense with the tenor of the message that sounded like a warning. Xi probably meant it as a rhetorical way of underscoring the importance of cooperation.
When Trump and Tsai Ing-wen were on the phone, and later when he addressed her as "President" on Twitter, China inwardly bristled but controlled its emotions. It decided to believe the convenient notion that the political rookie was in his learning curve and didn't fully grasp the sensitivity of the Taiwan issue. And yet when Trump declared that the "one China" policy was also a matter of negotiation, Beijing became alarmed.
No previous U.S. president has challenged the one China policy since Washington and Beijing established diplomatic relations in 1979. Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, was well-known for his careful efforts to avoid confrontation with China. Trump comes as a different sort.
Most notable of China's efforts to woo Trump was its latest "signal diplomacy." Signal diplomacy is a communication tactic used to convey a certain intention, hoping that the other side believes it. An example of signal diplomacy is sending a trial balloon by a leader through a conciliatory speech. The most important element in the practice of signal diplomacy is to maintain coherence of message. Another element is to establish the credibility of the message. If the messenger, for instance, belongs to a credible group that represents the official stance of a country, the more credibility he carries.
In an unusual feat for China's signal diplomacy, it chose Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang and had him interviewed by American news outlet NBC News. For one hour, Lu was grilled by NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, who flew to Beijing and sat down with him. While the questions varied from overall U.S.-China relations to the more specifics about the South China Sea, trade, North Korea and Taiwan, it was clear that Lu was on a mission to send out a singular message: the one China policy is not up for negotiation.
Compared to their American counterparts, China's foreign ministry spokespeople are not used to subjecting themselves to questioning. The regular daily press briefing at the foreign ministry, held at 3 p.m., lasts only about 10 minutes. The atmosphere is solemn; the voice is disciplined. So, it was quite unusual for the Chinese government to avail its official spokesman to go the extra mile. The intended audience was not the average American. It was meant for Trump and Trump only.
Trump severely criticized China on a variety of fronts during the presidential transition. Considering that, China's ability to humble itself could be surprising as much as its ability to be otherwise overbearing. Samm Sacks, a China analyst with the Eurasia Group, observed that Beijing is very good at displaying the appearance of amicability with Washington, when it sees doing so fits with its interests. (On this point, North Korea perhaps should learn from China).
The reason China has been wooing Trump in a remarkable display of patience and humility, followed by the latest "signal diplomacy" through its foreign ministry spokesman, reflects the sentiment among Chinese strategists that it still has a chance to win over Trump. "After all, Trump and the people surrounding him are mostly businessmen," noted an interlocutor who is knowledgeable about the situation.
China's efforts may be paying off. There is an increasing tea leaf reading among observers that Xi and Trump might talk by phone soon. This may be a relief for China ― temporarily. There still is a lot of uncertainty in Sino-U.S. relations ahead.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org