Hong Kong [China]: Chinese officials will be patting themselves on the back after the G20 summit in Buenos Aires. Under pressure from different directions -- including the United States-led trade war and criticism of Beijing's treatment of its Uighur Muslim population -- China safely negotiated most sticking points in Argentina.
Trump prides himself on being an ace negotiator, relying on his immutable intuition. However, what is conspicuous in photographs of Trump's delegation around the Argentinean dinner table, where he had a working dinner with China, was the absence of any true China expert. In the recent decade, there has been a notable failure by the USA and other Western governments to understand China's direction and its modus operandi, and it seems Trump believes he does need such expert advice either.
The consensus reached by both countries at their G20 tete-a-tete is that they will attempt to reach agreement within 90 days on such issues as expanded market access, Intellectual Property (IP) protection, avoiding compulsory technology transfers and controlling cybercrime. If the agreement is not forthcoming, the USA's current 10% tariffs will rise to 25% after that 90-day period, as was already planned for January 1.
The Chinese nationalist Global Times described "progress" at Buenos Aires as of "momentous significance". That particular newspaper's editorial line was one of positivity, highlighting China's opening up and the common ground between the two states. An op-ed by the state-owned paper noted examples of how China was playing its part. "The country, it can be seen, is turning a new page in opening up," the writer enthused. "Ultimately, differences lead to integration rather than isolation. When that historic moment arrives, it is inevitable that both sides will promote more exchanges."
In fact, such comments are mere window dressing. Under President Xi Jinping, the country has been rapidly and irrevocably shutting up shop, stealing IP and holding foreign companies wishing to do business in China over a barrel.
China will also continue to peddle the argument that there is no winner in a trade war, primarily because it will receive the shortest end of the stick. The Global Times stated, for example, "The needs of the two sides do not stand in each other's way and a trade war is not a viable option."
One needs to ask why Trump is taking his foot off the pedal now. The trade war had cast a pall over the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Papua New Guinea in November, and China was clearly feeling the heat from US-enacted sanctions and tariffs. So, is now the right time to let up and give Beijing much-needed breathing space? Little wonder that Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the meeting as "friendly and candid".
Of course, the tariffs have not been lifted, only agreed that they will not be raised on 1 January if trade talks occur. China can thus be seen as simply stalling for much-needed time; the G20 meeting has granted it three months without it really having to give anything valuable away in return. In that respect it is a face-saving measure for both sides, but perhaps a lost opportunity for Washington to double down. In other words, Beijing receives a 90-day free pass.
After his grilled sirloin steak working dinner, Trump exulted, "This was an amazing and productive meeting with unlimited possibilities for both the United States and China. It is my great honour to be working with President Xi."
Instead of praising his counterpart, Trump should have been lambasting Xi for his crass human rights record during their first face-to-face meeting since the opening shots were fired in the trade war. No mention was made in US official statements of China's treatment of its Muslim population, where possibly a million Uighurs in Xinjiang Province have been incarcerated.
Indeed, China's treatment of a whole culture and ethnic group has still not garnered the international outrage it should have. As Muslims languish in prison camp conditions, with very few inmates being released and word of numerous deaths in custody leaking out, where are the protests of indignation from the Muslim world let alone the international community?
The response by Muslim states at the United Nations has been non-existent. There have been no calls for commissions of enquiry, no emergency sessions nor any resolutions. On the contrary, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was seen in photographs beaming alongside Xi at the G20 meeting.
Such a spineless and lacklustre response from international leaders must surely embolden China to continue its ruthless pogrom. Indeed, this appears to be happening as there are early indications that Muslim populations other than Uighurs are being targeted.
In Ningxia, for example, which is home to most Hui Muslims, a senior party official named Zhang Yunsheng praised Xi's counterterrorism campaign and called for his province to "better integrate with Xinjiang" and to "strengthen the deep cooperation between the two places in anti-terrorism, social stability and ethnic religion". The stage is thus being set for that province's 10+ million Huis to undergo "re-education" just like their Uighur brothers and sisters.
The fact that Xi did not come under intense scrutiny or criticism for this horrendous abuse is a huge success for him. He managed to dodge this bullet at the G20.
Then again, Trump has already showed he is as mercantile as China by saying that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder was worthless to him than Saudi arms sales. Trump has already set a precedent that gels with China's own heartless calculation of human life and culture.
Amidst the usual US-China trade and geopolitical disputes, it is likely that resentment and mistrust will continue to rise, thus raising the chance of miscalculation, especially when it comes to sore points such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. Unfortunately, the hardening of positions on both sides, especially when issues are manipulated to appeal to domestic political audiences, does not augur well for easy resolution.
It needs to be remembered that China's tit-for-tat tariffs against the USA were largely aimed at Trump's voter base too, perhaps persuading Trump to give a little. For example, Beijing's cumulative total of USD 110 billion in tariffs targets such things as American farm produce and soybeans. Indeed, China imposed a 25% duty on soybeans, causing a sharp decline in US soybean sales.
Faced with the prospect of deteriorating bilateral ties with the USA, Xi made special efforts with India. Patching up ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi means China will not have to "fight" simultaneously on two fronts. China wants to keep India bogged down, as evidenced by minimal or nil progress on border disputes, but at the same time, Xi does not want to push Delhi into the arms of the USA by excessive pressure.
In fact, questions should be asked why Delhi is not taking fuller advantage of the good hand it has been dealt. It can leverage its current position to get more concessions from Beijing, with Russia also trying to balance its Indian and Chinese relations. India occupies a kind of geopolitical sweet spot where China, Russia and the USA are all vying for good relations with this "swing state". However, will India have the diplomatic tact, nous and determination to leverage this to its own advantage?
In conclusion, this G20 meeting between Trump and Xi resulted in a holding pattern, something that both sides can take home as a victory, but with a result that eases pressure on Xi. Despite this ceasefire, it seems hard to believe that China will truly address the deep-seated issues that the USA has raised. It merely provides both sides with time to recalculate their next moves.
Just as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un deftly played Trump earlier in the year during the historical summit in Singapore, making promises that Kim can easily prevaricate on, it seems that Xi has taken the same page out of the playbook. It simply involves kicking the can down the road, pandering to Trump's vanity and giving him something to crow about, with no real intention to concede much at all.