China: President Xi, King Salman, and President Trump

Published on March 30, 2020

China’s President Xi Jinping presided over a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee on Friday morning in Zhongnanhai, Beijing, to refine a series of COVID-19 response policies laid out two days earlier by the Standing Committee of the Politburo.

Later that day Xi spoke, separately, with US President Donald Trump, and with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz.

*** President Xi’s call with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman received glowing reviews in China’s state-controlled media, touting the bonds between the two countries and their leaders. More to the point, our understanding is that in that call Xi conveyed a message to the elderly King from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin that Moscow would be ready to engage in talks to stabilize the collapsing oil markets. However, Xi warned, that would only be possible if the Kingdom were to apologize to Putin for Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s “reckless” actions. ***

*** President Xi’s call with President Trump that evening went for about an hour and, from what we understand, was almost entirely focused on China’s experience and response to the COVID-19 crisis. While Beijing made pledges to send medical supplies to the US, there was, however, a frosty undertone to that call, and in contrast to the Saudi king, Trump was given short shrift in state media coverage in a deliberate attempt to convey Beijing’s “indignance” at the labeling of the COVID-19 by US administration officials as the Chinese, or Wuhan, virus. ***

*** On the domestic policy front, earlier that day the Politburo reviewed China’s epidemic, and economic situation, and maintained the assessment that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a global recession at least as bad, and most likely more severe, than the global financial crisis of 2008. The responses outlined thus remain largely focused on preventing a second wave of the virus, and in supporting the economy through fiscal measures. ***

A Message to Salman from Putin

Official media coverage of the call between Xi Jinping and King Salman emphasized the personal friendship between the two leaders, and the stability of relations between China and Saudi Arabia. Beyond such platitudes, the oil situation was a major topic of discussion between the two.

From what we understand, Xi stressed that China would be willing to work with both Saudi Arabia and Russia to stabilize the global crude oil market, and that China would import more oil from Saudi Arabia this year than last, which was first promised to Riyadh in late February.

Most importantly, Xi also conveyed a message from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin that Moscow was willing to continue in dialogue with Riyadh on cutting output.

But Xi passed another message to King Salman as well: that before any talks could resume between the two sides, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman would first need to apologize directly to Putin for his “reckless” behavior in flooding the oil markets and sending prices into a tailspin.

There was no indication of how the ailing King took the advice regarding his son.

The Trump-Xi Phone Call

The call between Xi and Trump lasted an hour, and was, from what we understand, focused almost entirely on COVID-19.

According to Chinese sources briefed on the call, Trump inquired in detail about the control and treatment measures taken by China in fighting the virus, and Xi expressed China’s willingness to help the US – “within its capacity” – in its own fight. Beijing then promised that local governments and businesses will, starting next week, send more ventilators, masks, isolation gowns, medical goggles, and surgical gloves to the US.

But official outrage in Beijing over Trump administration officials’ use of the term “Chinese” or “Wuhan virus” to describe the COVID-19 pandemic coursed beneath the surface of the call as well.

To make that point, the state-controlled China Central Television’s (CCTV) Xinwen Lianbo show went out of its way to relegate just one snippy line in the evening news to the call between the two leaders; that the two leaders had spoken, “at the request of President Trump,” behind a full two minute segment on Xi’s call with King Salman.

A Gloomy Politburo Meeting

Meanwhile, the official line from Beijing has been brimming with confidence over the country’s COVID-19 response measures and its prospects for a strong economic recovery, but China’s leadership expressed mounting alarm in Friday’s Politburo meeting over contagion back to its shores from both the epidemiological and economic devastation that is now spreading around the globe.

China, they concluded, is now facing increasing challenges both from imported cases of the virus and, on the economic front, from the dire prospects for a strong recovery ever in the global industrial chain that China is so reliant on.

The meeting’s assessment was that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a global recession at least as bad, and most likely more severe, than the global financial crisis of 2008.

The most pressing task, it was concluded, was to prevent the inflow of foreign infections as well as a second wave resurgence of domestic cases. To that effect, Beijing has suspended the entry of foreign nationals holding Chinese visas and residence permits for one month, at least, and will extend the ban longer if deemed necessary.

On the economic front, the meeting called for a package of measures to offset the damage caused by the COVID-19 crisis, mostly focused on fiscal policy, raising the official deficit target to 3.5% of GDP, and authorizing the issuance of special treasury bonds for 2020.

The State Council was furthermore tasked with ensuring that the scale of tax and fee reductions reach over 3.5 trillion yuan this year, at least 1.2 trillion higher than last year’s 2.3 trillion yuan of cuts.

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