China Power | Diplomacy | Politics | East Asia

Pomp and Circumstance: Interpreting the Signing Ceremony of the US-China Trade Deal

What signals did the ceremony send about the substance of the deal?

Bonnie Girard
Pomp and Circumstance: Interpreting the Signing Ceremony of the US-China Trade Deal
Credit: Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen

On the morning of January 15, more than 30 journalists, nearly all of them from China, stood waiting for clearance to enter the gate for press and appointment holders on the northwest side of the White House. The Secret Service required them to place their bags and equipment on the ground and to then back away, toward the fence separating the White House entrance area from pedestrianized Pennsylvania Avenue beyond.

Then the dog sniffer and his handler came out, a first for this correspondent to see at the White House. They went from bag to bag, much like one would see in an airport international baggage claim area.

A second security check was then made by a plain clothes specialist, who opened cases and looked at the technologies inside.

All passed, and all eventually entered. But it was a startling reminder that while inside an American president waited to sign an enormous trade deal with a vice premier of China, outside the distrust and suspicion that exists between the two nations was on full display.

Such was the setting for the signing of the U.S.-China Phase One trade deal, which has put a semi-colon into the ongoing discussions after 18 months of talks, negotiation breakdowns, tariffs, and strong language on both sides.

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The deal itself has already been much analyzed and commented upon. But the ceremony that finalized this phase of the negotiations added substance and context to the overall deal, and bears looking at.

It’s important to note that the ceremony was in Washington, not Beijing. China would normally have pushed to have it on their home turf (and many in Washington over the years would have conceded). Beijing accepted the American venue, but didn’t send their president. Instead, they sent President Xi Jinping’s letter in the pocket of Vice Premier Liu He, who indeed has been key on the Chinese side in the negotiations. Liu read the letter from Xi, in Chinese, once he had the floor during the ceremony.

Liu’s rank has been a source of criticism against the United States president. Why did Trump agree to sign a deal with someone not equal to his own political status? Why didn’t the two key American negotiators, Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, or Steve Mnuchin, the U.S. treasury secretary, sign the deal, with Trump looking benevolently on?

The first reason is simply that it is unthinkable that Donald Trump would have relegated the opportunity to, for example, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who is arguably the closest person that the United States has in rank to Vice Premier Liu. Trump was undoubtedly looking forward to the day he could personally take the first step in materially and strategically rebalancing a relationship he had been critical of for years before he became president. Trump has been calling attention to the U.S.-China trade imbalance, theft of American intellectual property, and above all, the flight of American jobs to China for a long time now.

The second reason, more importantly, was that recalibrating the relationship in favor of the American worker was a campaign promise. Throughout hundreds of campaign rallies and speeches leading up to the 2016 election – ABC reports that Trump did 302 times in 2016 alone – Trump consistently addressed the skewed U.S.-China relationship and his intention to do something about it. It was a key policy point that resonated with people who had been deeply and personally affected, but who had had little notice taken of their pain or plight.

And thirdly, Trump has shown himself to be usually impervious to issues of rank and status, a trait often lost on observers. Trump didn’t need Xi Jinping to be there in order to know that a significant victory had been scored.

In other words, everything that led to the signing ceremony on January 15 was an enterprise that Trump put into motion from the beginning, and it was never likely that Lighthizer or Mnuchin was going to have center stage for it.

With the president as emcee of the signing show, he was able to introduce and thank a panoply of who’s who in politics and business in America. Lighthizer and Mnuchin on one side, and Liu He and his aide on the other, stood for the best part of an hour as Trump recognized a list of people dozens long.

Trump, at ease and in his element, acknowledged that it was going to be a lengthy process, and made light of it:

So we have tremendous numbers of people here, and I’m saying, “Do I introduce them?” But I think I sort of should because what the hell. This is a big celebration. And, by the way, some of the congressmen may have a vote…it’s on the impeachment hoax. So, if you want, you go out and vote. It’s not going to matter, because it’s gone very well. But I’d rather have you voting than sitting here, listening to me introduce you, okay?

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Self-deprecating humor is not a strong Chinese cultural trait. The Chinese will have studied the president’s style by now, but it is a fair bet that Trump’s willingness and ability to make that joke about his impeachment, in that place and at that time, left them reeling.

Tellingly, and significantly, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was there as well. Kissinger was President Richard Nixon’s point man on China and has been a source of support and continuity for the U.S.-China relationship since its renewal by the dual events of 1971: the American table-tennis team’s visit to China in April and Kissinger’s secret visit to China three months later in July.

In the end, Trump’s hour-long introduction of key government, media, and business leaders, bolstered by the presence of elder statesman Kissinger, struck exactly the right cultural chord for a deal of this breadth and magnitude with China. It demonstrated strength, support, and solidarity for the deal from major segments of American society. And at the same time, it showed the Chinese leadership exactly who they will have to deal with if they decide not to honor their commitments.