As President Donald Trump prepares for his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on April 6 and 7, he would do well to ask what Solomon would do. Not the biblical King Solomon, but Richard H. Solomon, the prominent China scholar and policymaker who sadly passed away at the end of March.
Richard Solomon was a protégé of the great Massachusetts Institute of Technology China scholar Lucian Pye, and in turn mentored scores of rising Asia hands, including me. Solomon wrote over a dozen books on the internal dynamics and foreign policy of Mao’s China. As a National Security Council staffer, head of the policy planning staff, and then assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, he applied his deep scholarship of China to the practical tasks of strategic planning and diplomacy. The most influential fusion of his knowledge of history with the practice of diplomacy came in the form of a classified RAND Corporation report, later declassified and published as China’s Negotiating Behavior, 1967-1984. In the book, Solomon demonstrates that (among other traits) China will always seek to: 1) Play opposing adversaries off against each other while identifying and cultivating the right interlocutor to advance China’s position; 2) insist on “high principles” that favor China, rather than concrete outcomes; and 3) distort the record of the meeting and the interpretation of agreed “high principles” to then advance China’s original objectives.
I doubt that Trump has read Solomon’s classic, but you can be certain that the Chinese side has poured over Trump’s The Art of the Deal. If the president isn’t careful, his practice of fostering competing power centers in the White House could play right into the Chinese strategy of dividing opponents and then identifying and cultivating the right interlocutor, preferably one who is powerful but has no fixed position on China (for example, Jared Kushner). The isolation of the White House from experienced China hands in the State Department could also leave the president vulnerable to Beijing’s strategy of passing off “high principles” that have significance novice policymakers would not recognize (for example, agreeing to Xi’s proposal for a “New Model of Great Power Relations,” which sounds positive but is premised on downgrading U.S. allies and partners in preference for a bipolar U.S.-China condominium). Finally, the Trump White House, not yet capable of tracking outcomes and correcting the record on actual policy issues, could be highly susceptible to China’s reinterpretation of the results of the meeting (for example, Chinese claims that the United States no longer cares about human rights because they did not come up in public during the summit).
We will see what happens this week. Interactions with the president have proven an interesting spin of the wheel for foreign leaders. Some have come out extremely well (Japanese President Shinzo Abe), others quite badly (Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull), and some adequate if awkward (German Chancellor Angela Merkel). In any case, it isn’t too late for the experts on the National Security Council staff to bring a copy of Richard Solomon’s classic into the West Wing.
Photo credit: CHAD J. MCNEELEY/U.S. Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons