Earlier this year when it appeared that China and the US were about to finalise a now illusive trade deal, Donald Trump stated that such a deal would only be inked if he was able to host Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago retreat amid the typical pomp and circumstance of such an occasion. At the time when many in both China and the US felt that the end of the trade war was on the horizon, Trump’s desire to hold a major summit to “celebrate” the end of the trade war seemed somewhat excessive.
In hindsight however, it is clear why Trump felt that such a signing ceremony was necessary. In many ways, Trump is the all-American leader. He speaks casually, he’s a stereotypical successful capitalist, he prefers burgers to fine dining and is unabashed about loving television. And yet, there is something about Trump that is quaintly reminiscent of feudal Europe. Just as a prince might favour the economic position of a local lord due to personal affection, Trump is someone who much prefers working with individuals he can trust on a personal level. Although Trump is famous for delegating important tasks to skilled individuals going back to his days in property development and property branding, the hands-on Donald Trump one used to see on reality television has actually turned out to be an accurate representation of Trump the political leader. Even his preferred ways to entertain dignitaries is reminiscent of that of a feudal prince. Trump is much more comfortable hosting foreign leaders and dignitaries on his own property (Mar-a-Lago, various Trump resorts) than he is hosting such leaders at the White House. This ought to offer an indication of the fact that for Trump, a personalised approach to diplomacy is the one that truly matters.
Perhaps then it is little wonder that in spite of having different geo-strategic aspirations to many Asian leaders, some of the foreign leaders that Trump has the best personal relations with are from Asia. Whether his golfing companion Shinzō Abe, his “love letter” pen pal Kim Jong-un, a man he openly admires like Rodrigo Duterte or his “good friend” Xi Jinping – all of these leaders have better personal relations with Trump than do western leaders including the technocratic and cold Angela Merkel, the virtue signalling Justin Trudeau or the incredibly bland Theresa May.
Of course there is an empirical explanation behind this seemingly inexplicable trend. In most Asian societies individual respect for another person, particular one in a leadership position remains the norm rather than the exception. By contrast, western leaders might know how to admire someone for their positions but the admiration rarely translates into personal respect. Taking this issue further, for Trump, personal respect is the gateway to personal trust and beyond that, personal trust is the all important gateway to personal friendship.
Although Trump is highly dramatic in terms of his public persona, he appears to have a substantial capacity for genuine friendship. Once such a friendship is secured, Trump is willing to be patient during intense negotiations, cooperative during long term discussions and optimistic about reaching a win-win goal. Trump’s views on the Korean peace process and his patience for working out a long term re-worked trading relationship with allied Japan are two key examples of this.
When it comes to China, both sides have suffered for the blameless reality that China and the US are the two biggest economies in world. As such, the complexities of a would-be trade deal are assumed to be that which requires teams of negotiators, economists, business consultants and all the other proverbial kings horses and men in order to reach some finality. But with Donald Trump calling the penultimate shots, this is simply not the case.
For Trump, a casual discussion with Xi Jinping overlooking the landscapes of Mar-a-Lago would probably do more for the interests of a conclusion to the first phase of the trade war than a meeting of technocrats from both sides. On a personal level, Trump might well admit that he is all too aware of the fact that trade deficits cannot be changed with the wave of a “magic policy wand” and that likewise, perhaps he and Xi could reach some middle ground on issues ranging from the Huawei embargo to newfound America hostility against Chinese students.
Trump is anything but stupid. What many confuse for stupidity is the fact that he gets easily frustrated when those working for him do not deliver the results that he believes he could deliver himself. Again, Trump in this sense is like a price of feudal Europe who when his knights cannot win a battle, he mounts a steed and leads his troops to war.
Whilst the developed world has moved on from feudalism, Trump’s all too human touch will not be changed throuhg theorising. It is here to stay. Therefore, one must learn Trump’s style of operation and make the most of it. Trump and Xi clearly respect each other at a personal level. If anything, this means that the two men should be speaking with each other far more frequently than they do because if anything can decrease existing bilateral tensions, direct engaging between Xi and Trump could do so.