Is Donald Trump’s family America’s best hope or biggest risk in repairing US-China relations?

At a time of strain in the countries’ relationship, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s efforts to improve the climate could falter, China analysts warn

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 5:35am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 July, 2017, 7:43pm

After a week of US government decisions that infuriated Beijing, US President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner may emerge as the US government’s best hope for getting the bilateral relationship back on track.

And their efforts could backfire, warned prominent China analysts, including award-winning author Orville Schell.

The US government’s approval of arms sales to Taiwan and a Senate committee provision allowing US naval ships to call in Taiwanese ports chilled the friendly relations Trump established during his summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida three months ago.

Other developments of the past week, including the State Department’s high-profile downgrade of China’s status in global efforts to fight human trafficking, “represent a return to the mean in US-China relations”, said Robert Daly of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Centre.

These developments follow months of unsuccessful efforts on the part of Trump’s administration to get Beijing to put enough pressure on Pyongyang to convince its neighbour to give up its nuclear weapons programme.

Frustration over the lack of progress was made clear by US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who told a House Foreign Affairs Committee this week that she would support secondary sanctions against Chinese companies suspected of trading with North Korea.

A day later, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced sanctions on several Chinese parties, including Bank of Dandong, which he labelled “a gateway” for North Korea’s access to US and international financial systems.

These moves reflect “disappointment on the American side that Xi hasn’t taken up the opportunity” to apply more pressure on North Korea, said Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Centre on US-China Relations in New York.

“I think it’s a big mistake on China’s part not to do it because Trump is the kind of guy who would give away the store if China would play ball.”

So far, there’s no indication that the US government’s decisions with respect to Taiwan and China have derailed any outreach by Beijing to Kushner or Ivanka Trump.

Leaders in Beijing “recognise that the traditional [Washington] structures, particularly the State Department and the National Security Council, are pretty dysfunctional right now and that if they’re going to get anything done, personal politics will probably override the traditional bureaucratic solutions”, Schell said.

“The Trump administration still does not have in place the key second, third, and fourth-level policy personnel throughout the bureaucracy with whom the Chinese can effectively and confidently deal,” according to David Lampton, professor and director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins–SAIS and former president of the National Committee on US-China Relations.

“Absent this, Beijing has gone straight to the top.”

Using connections with the family members of sitting presidents isn’t without precedent for China.

Much like Donald Trump, former US President George W. Bush used anti-China rhetoric in his winning campaign in 2000. In response, the Chinese government appointed now State Councillor Yang Jiechi to its Washington embassy because of his connection to Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush.

The elder Bush, who was president from 1989 to 1993, considered Yang “a longtime family friend”, according to a 2008 Washington Post interview in Beijing.

Indeed, the blood-runs-thicker approach is traditionally a preferred government conduit in China.

“The fact that Trump’s most trusted advisers are family members is entirely recognisable in the Chinese context,” said Lampton.

“The way you influence a strong man is to influence those most credible with, and closest to, him.”

The problem with comparing the senior Bush’s Beijing connection during his son’s term in the White House to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s turn as key envoys during Donald Trump’s administration, say analysts, is the wide gap in terms of foreign policy experience.

The elder Bush had spent many years in public service, including a stint as a senior diplomat in Beijing in the 1970s.

Bill Harlow, a CIA spokesman under Democratic and Republican administrations, was quoted in a documentary on Bush senior as saying the former president had “the strongest resume of anyone in history to the presidency of the US”.

Kushner and Ivanka Trump have official White House jobs as advisers on issues domestic and international despite their lack of foreign policy experience. Kushner had no foreign policy experience before his father-in-law’s inauguration in January.

Multiple media outlets have reported on Beijing’s efforts to court the two to help with preparations for the US president’s planned visit to China in November, though details of the trip haven’t yet been disclosed.

Schell underscored the danger of appointing those unfamiliar with the history of US-China relations into roles that guide this relationship.

China’s central government is animated by “a fundamental distrust of American intentions because the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have learned over the last decade that there’s a very strong anti-Communist, anti-Leninist, anti-autocratic sentiment in America, and that’s why they may have a strong view that we are a hostile foreign force”.

China fears “the unravelling” of the regime in Pyongyang because “when you unravel one regime, why not another”? Schell said, adding that this “pathology” runs deep in Xi Jinping’s government, and those inexperienced in statecraft – Kushner and Ivanka Trump in particular – don’t have the skills to negotiate around it.

Other analysts agree.

“It would be best for Beijing and Washington to manage normalised relations through normal channels – well-staffed professional bureaucracies”, said the Wilson Center’s Robert Daly. “The normal state of affairs in US-China relations is dangerous enough without the involvement of inexperienced personal emissaries.”

Johns Hopkins–SAIS’s Lampton said the use of Kushner risks much, for Beijing and Washington.

“First, there is likely to be a popular backlash in the United States against this kind of disordered policy process so subject to conflict of interest. Beijing could easily get sucked into such controversy.

“And second, over the last 40 years, US-China relations has been fairly stable precisely because it was anchored in the procedures and interests of our complicated society and government.”

Further details about preparations for Donald Trump’s November visit to Beijing may emerge when he meets Xi Jinping, as expected, on the sidelines of the G20 in Hamburg, Germany next week.