[“Xi Jinping is more measured in his public statements than Donald Trump, but the Chinese government will likely hit back quite forcefully against any radical efforts to challenge the status quo,” Ms. Weiss said. “The best thing the president-elect’s advisers can do for our national security is to screen Trump’s tweets.”]
By Chris Buckley
President Xi Jinping singing the Chinese national anthem at the Great Hall
of the People in Beijing. Unlike President-elect Donald J. Trump,
Mr. Xi rarely speaks off the cuff in public.
Credit Damir Sagolj/Reuters
BEIJING — Both came to power vowing to restore their nations to greatness. But America’s loud, ad-libbing president-elect, Donald J. Trump, and China’s guarded, calculating president, Xi Jinping, are glaring contrasts as politicians, and their pairing has injected new unpredictability into relations between their governments.
“I could not think of two more different protagonists in the great drama of U.S.-China relations,” Evan S. Medeiros, formerly the senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, said by email. “Personalities matter a lot in international relations, especially between great powers.”
A quarrel after China seized an underwater drone from the United States Navy has given a taste of how Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Xi’s different styles could play out if bigger tensions were to break out over the South China Sea, trade imbalances, North Korea’s nuclear weapons or other issues that Mr. Trump has raised.
Mr. Trump has recently blared warnings at China, seemingly guided by visceral reflexes and a vague but bold set of demands. By contrast, Mr. Xi, the son of a Communist veteran, is disciplined and steely. He rarely speaks off the cuff in public. Even his seemingly impromptu gestures are often carefully choreographed, and he usually adheres to policy points when meeting foreign leaders. Mr. Xi is certainly capable of bold action, as he has shown in the South China Sea, but he tends to shroud his thinking in a cloud of slogans. That leaves outsiders guessing about when and how he will act on his demands.
“The situation could become quite combustible,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor at Cornell University who studies Chinese foreign policy.
“Xi Jinping is more measured in his public statements than Donald Trump, but the Chinese government will likely hit back quite forcefully against any radical efforts to challenge the status quo,” Ms. Weiss said. “The best thing the president-elect’s advisers can do for our national security is to screen Trump’s tweets.”
Mr. Trump took to Twitter on Saturday after the Chinese military confirmed that it had seized a submersible drone in waters about 50 miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines. The Pentagon had revealed the seizure, and China’s Ministry of National Defense said it would return the device, which can be used to monitor undersea currents and conditions, in an “appropriate manner.”
Mr. Trump suggested that wasn’t good enough. He said China’s seizure was an unprecedented act, and later added, “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.”
Mr. Trump did not say how he would handle similar disputes after he is sworn. But his other comments so far suggest that he will take a blunter, less predictable course on China than recent White House administrations.
This month, Mr. Trump spoke on the phone with Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, breaking nearly 40 years of American presidents and presidents-elect avoiding direct conversation with the leader of the island, over which China claims sovereignty.
In an interview with Fox News, Mr. Trump then suggested he could depart from the One China principle, which blocks Washington from diplomatic ties with Taiwan, using that as a pressure point to seek trade concessions from Beijing. He also criticized China on trade, the buildup of military outposts in the South China Sea and its reluctance to isolate North Korea.
“China is not used to the U.S. asserting and pushing its interests like the Chinese do,” said Dan Blumenthal, the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who praised Mr. Trump’s blunter approach. “If it is prepared for that, we will be able to avoid confrontation and conflict.”
So far, Mr. Xi has not reacted publicly to Mr. Trump’s warnings. The two men had a brief but cordial call after Mr. Trump won the election. Chinese leaders rarely wade openly into disputes, leaving that to junior officials. But pressure for a tougher reaction to Mr. Trump could build in China if he keeps lobbing out warnings, especially after he becomes president.
Experts disagreed over whether China’s seizure of the submersible drone was intended as a signal to Mr. Trump, or even authorized by Mr. Xi. But Chinese decision makers probably took into account that Mr. Trump’s team would read it as “a test and a warning,” said Ni Lexiong, a naval affairs researcher at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.
“It would be impossible for China not to react to his provocations,” Mr. Ni said by telephone. “Trump seems to want a foreign policy that keeps the other side guessing. But that way of working can easily lead to trouble.”
On Monday, an editorial in a prominent Communist Party newspaper said that Mr. Xi’s government needed to be ready for rockier relations.
“Trump hits out with a hammer to the east and a club to the west, and his real thinking is very difficult to fathom,” said the editorial in the overseas edition of the paper, People’s Daily, using a Chinese saying that means to speak or act without rhyme or reason. China, it said, should “stay steady on its feet, keep a good grasp of developments, calmly respond, and that’s it.”
But even China’s calls for calm have barbs and caveats that could rile a Trump administration.
When the Chinese defense ministry said it would return the submersible drone, it also said the Chinese ship showed a “professional and responsible attitude” by seizing the device, although the drone appeared to be outside even an extremely expansive view of China’s rightful reach in the South China Sea.
Chinese hard-liners are already urging a harsher response to Mr. Trump. On Saturday, Global Times, a newspaper often dominated by anti-American rhetoric, held a forum in Beijing where speakers urged tough retaliation if Mr. Trump moved closer to Taiwan, and praised the seizure of the underwater drone.
“China isn’t afraid of confrontation with America,” Dai Xu, a former Chinese Air Force senior colonel and outspoken hawk, said at the meeting. “Without China’s cooperation, Trump will achieve nothing. I dare say that if he opts for confrontation with China, he won’t stay in office for more than four years.”
Another speaker, Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, told Global Times: “China is a dragon. America is an eagle. Britain is a lion. When the dragon wakes up, the others are all snacks.”
Such tough talk does not set Chinese foreign policy, but Mr. Xi and other leaders are sensitive to nationalist ire that they themselves have nurtured. Mr. Xi has summed up his vision of national rejuvenation and strength as the “Chinese Dream,’’ a theme he has promoted since taking office.
Pressures on Mr. Xi are likely to grow if Mr. Trump continues publicly excoriating China, especially on territorial issues, like Taiwan and the South China Sea, where public sentiment often favors a tough response.
“China tends to give the new leader a grace period to settle in,” Ms. Weiss said, citing her research about China’s response to elections and new leaders. “Trump has moved more quickly to challenge and defy China than other president-elects, however, so the grace period could end quickly.”
American presidents know how swiftly relations with China can deteriorate.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton struggled to repair ties after NATO bombs struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, then the capital of Yugoslavia, killing three people. The White House insisted the bombing was accidental, but the Chinese government did not believe that, and days of angry protests followed.
In 2001, a United States Navy reconnaissance plane made an emergency landing on Hainan, a Chinese island-province jutting into the South China Sea, after colliding with a Chinese Air Force jet whose pilot plunged to his death. Eleven days later, China released the 24 American crew members, and the plane was recovered in parts over the following months.
A scenario like that could unfold very differently under Mr. Trump.
“If Trump perceives that he is being challenged, he will probably instinctively not want to be seen as weak,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It will be very messy if he decides to tweet or speak publicly in a crisis before he has all the intelligence and analysis necessary.”
Mr. Xi also has his domestic political timetable to worry about. He was appointed head of the Communist Party in 2012, and next year a party congress is all but certain to give him five more years in that job. But Mr. Xi must settle on a new cohort of senior officials to work under him, and during elite shake-ups the party leadership puts even more emphasis on stability.
“The leadership has to balance those goals of preserving a more stable and predictable external environment with avoiding the perception of weakness and vulnerability,” Ms. Glaser said. “I tend to believe that the latter will trump the former if the Chinese leadership has to choose. Pun intended.”