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China’s plan for influencing Trump: lavish dinners and grand gestures

It worked for Saudi Arabia.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

China will be giving Donald Trump some extra lavish treatment during his first presidential visit to the country — a sign that Beijing is angling to use flattery as a tool of diplomacy during high-stakes negotiations over trade and North Korea.

On Wednesday, China will honor Trump with not just an official “state visit” — typically the grandest and friendliest invitation that a visiting head of state is offered — but rather with a “state visit-plus,” according to Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai.

The reception will include a military honor guard, a formal banquet, and some as-yet undefined “special arrangements,” according to Cui. Trump will also be treated to an unusual amount of face-time with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Publicly, Chinese officials insist such gestures are meant to reciprocate the hospitality that Trump showed Xi when he hosted Xi at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in April. But experts say that Beijing is trying to go the extra mile to butter up Trump during a critical time for defining their future relationship.

“The Chinese want to do everything they can to ensure a ‘successful visit’ — they will turn out big events, lots of gala celebrations, all kinds of things that Trump loves,” Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow who specializes in East Asia at the Brookings Institution, told me. “They want the appearance of this visit to be quite grand and quite flattering.”

China is going to make the most out of home field advantage

There’s little doubt that the Chinese will go out of their way to cater to Trump’s idiosyncratic tastes as he goes through a trip that will place him out of his comfort zone.

The president’s visit to China will be the last stop on his grueling 12-day, five-country tour through Asia — the longest trip by an American president to the region in more than a quarter century.

Trump is known as a creature of habit and a homebody who makes inconvenient nighttime flights just to sleep in his own bed. One person involved in planning Trump’s Asia trip told CNN that they’ve asked for “No whole fish with the heads still on, nothing too spicy," on menus while he’s abroad. There will likely be luxurious sleeping quarters and special culinary arrangements intended to make Trump feel comfortable and upbeat.

But by giving Trump extra one-on-one time with Xi, the Chinese are doing more than just appealing to Trump’s ego. They’re also creating an environment to maximize influence over him. Trump is notably fond of Xi and swayed easily during one-on-one conversations. After the Mar-a-Lago summit, Trump admitted that Xi managed to radically reshape Trump’s views on how to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program in a matter of minutes.

“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” he told the Wall Street Journal in April. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over] North Korea. ... But it’s not what you would think.”

That’s essential for understanding why the Chinese view this upcoming meeting as such a big opportunity. Xi was able to single-handedly convince Trump to move much closer to the Chinese perspective on how to handle Pyongyang’s rogue nuclear program, even though the US and China have sharply differing strategic interests in their approach to the issue.

Undoubtedly, Xi will try to do that again during talks about security and the economy — and this time he’ll have a stronger hand.

Trump just had one of the worst weeks of his presidency. Xi is at the apex of his power.

Xi will not only be able to impress Trump with grand gestures and flattery while hosting him in his own country. He’ll also be able to flex his muscles.

The Chinese Communist Party recently reappointed Xi as president, and in the process endowed him with more power than a Chinese leader has had in decades.

Trump was clearly impressed with Xi’s reappointment, which some China analysts say have given him powers over Chinese affairs comparable to the founder of modern China, Mao Zedong. Trump told Fox News in October that Xi’s special elevation has “really virtually never happened in China” before now.

“People say we have the best relationship of any president-president, because he’s called president also,” he said. “Now some people might call him the king of China. But he’s called president.”

With more political capital than he’s ever had before, Xi will likely feel more confident and agile projecting Chinese power in talks with Trump over how to handle North Korea and rebalance the trade deficit.

Trump, by contrast, may feel somewhat desperate. Plagued by Russia scandals and dropping poll numbers at home, he’ll likely be impatient and more inclined for some kind of symbolic political win.

Damien Ma, a China analyst at the Paulson Institute, told me he expects to see Xi offer symbolic gestures like buying a fleet of Boeing aircraft from the US.

“There will be some headline grabbing deals, I’m sure,” he said. “But whether they try to solve some underlying structural issue, that’s something we’ll have to see.”

Those structural issues are things like China’s hostility to foreign investors and its subsidies of exports — behaviors that violate global trade and investment norms and give it a big advantage in global markets.

Those are things that Trump needs to tackle in hard-charging negotiations with Beijing if he truly wants to deliver on his promise to check the rise of Chinese economic power in the global arena. We’ll see if he can keep his eye on the ball.