An interesting Financial Times scoop over the weekend appears to have mostly gone unnoticed, perhaps given that its subject is no longer a member of the Trump administration. Steve Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart and a senior adviser to U.S. President Donald J. Trump until this August, “flew to Beijing last week for a secret meeting with the second most powerful Chinese Communist party official,” the FT reported.
That powerful CCP official was none other than Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption tzar, Wang Qishan, the head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. The meeting reportedly took place at Zhongnanhai and took place at the invitation of the Chinese government; Bannon likely happily accepted the invitation. He does not appear to have met with anyone else at or above Wang’s level (like Chinese President Xi Jinping).
Bannon, as the driver of the economic nationalist wing of the White House while he was in government, is an interesting figure to be meeting with someone like Wang for a variety of reasons. First, he was a major driver of anti-China sentiment while in the executive branch.
In his final interview with the American Prospect before leaving government, Bannon described his efforts to take on “the Departments of Defense, State, and Treasury” in pursuing a harder line on Beijing. He added:
…the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, ten years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.
Second, in that same interview, Bannon expressed interest in a “freeze” deal for North Korea, something that China has adopted as its preferred way forward on the Korean Peninsula. (Bannon’s concessions for a freeze were far more than even the North Koreans would likely demand at first, including a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Peninsula.)
Though Bannon left the White House under difficult circumstances and has been perceived to now be a troublesome figure for Trump, is there a chance that he was operating as some sort of intermediary between Trump and China’s leadership ahead of a scheduled visit by the U.S. president to Beijing later this month? It’s not entirely outlandish given everything else going on this year, but it still appears to be a remote possibility.
Rather—and this is mere informed speculation—it seems that Wang and the CCP may have reached out to Bannon in an effort to better understand this unusual U.S. administration, which has clear “factions” when it comes to managing the bilateral relationship with China.
To Bannon’s more extreme flank, for example, we find men like Peter Navarro, who’d see a total reduction in U.S. trade openness with Beijing. Moreover, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and National Economic Council chief Gary Cohn favor a more docile working relationship.
If anything, the unusual meeting between this former White House official and China’s anticorruption czar would speak to China’s continued inability to fully make sense of where the Trump administration sits on a range of issues. Efforts to lay the groundwork for Trump’s visit will continue through more orthodox channels, of course. U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is in Beijing this week to meet with senior Chinese Communist Party leadership himself.