At the Chinese Embassy in Washington last week, Ivanka Trump exited a black SUV with her daughter, Arabella, and shook the hand of Ambassador Cui Tiankai.
Ivanka and Arabella, who dressed in red for the Lunar New Year celebration on Feb. 1, were filmed listening to traditional music, admiring crafts and playing with puppets. Ivanka later posted a video of Arabella singing a song in Mandarin, further helping to quiet criticism after her father, President Donald Trump, broke with convention by not sending a personal New Year’s greeting.
Ivanka’s public meeting — lauded in China’s press — came after behind-the-scenes meetings between Cui and Jared Kushner, her husband and a presidential adviser. Kushner and Cui have had an extensive ongoing dialogue that has been positive, according to a White House official who asked not to be identified because the meetings were private.
As countries around the world figure out how to influence the new U.S. administration, China is going straight to the top: Trump’s immediate family. In bypassing more traditional diplomatic channels such as the State Department, China is looking to open a more direct link to help avoid a trade war or military confrontation after Trump signaled a willingness to challenge Beijing’s red lines on Taiwan and the South China Sea.
The strategy is similar to one China employed with the Bush family, according to Dennis Wilder, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council during the last Bush administration and a long-time China military analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency. Former President George H.W. Bush, who served as the top U.S. representative in Beijing in the mid-1970s, retained personal connections with Chinese leaders.
“I predict very direct communication from the White House to Zhongnanhai,” Wilder said, referring to the seat of power in Beijing. Ivanka’s embassy visit made the Chinese leadership “extremely pleased because it advanced the personal connection to President Trump and his family,” he said.
The reaction to Ivanka’s New Year’s visit in the Chinese media marked a change from largely defensive comments in response to previous Trump remarks. The Global Times, a party-run newspaper known for its nationalist tone, said Ivanka helped balance her father’s “harsh posture” and the appearance “could be invigorating to the China-U.S. relationship.”
The access Trump’s family enjoys to the president has empowered their role in decision-making as formal responsibilities in the administration remain in flux. Trump appointed Kushner as a senior adviser in the White House in January.
Still, Trump has plenty of others in his circle who are urging a harder line against China, including strategist Steve Bannon and trade adviser Peter Navarro, whose books include “Death by China: Confronting the Dragon — A Global Call to Action.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson drew a rebuke from Beijing after saying that the U.S. would seek to block Chinese access to disputed reefs in the South China Sea.
Trump is under pressure to take some sort of action against China after criticizing the nation repeatedly over trade on the campaign trail. In tweets since his election win, Trump has questioned the One-China policy, which acknowledges Beijing’s claim to Taiwan, and criticized China’s leaders for failing to do more against North Korea. Just last week, he again accused China of manipulating its currency.President Xi Jinping has responded to Trump by urging global elites to reject trade wars and protectionism, most notably in a speech to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last month. His foreign minister, Wang Yi, repeated that message on Tuesday during a visit to Australia.
“In the past four decades, there has never been a shortage of tough or sometimes even irrational statements on China-U.S. relations,” Wang told reporters in Canberra. “But such statements aside, the China-U.S. relationship has defied all kinds of difficulties and has been moving forward continuously.” China is focused on official U.S. policy, not campaign rhetoric, he added.
The family courtship is part of a broader Chinese strategy to maintain stable relations between the two powers, according to Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies, a research group run by China’s foreign ministry, and an envoy to Washington between 2007 and 2011.
In addition to official exchanges such as the recent phone call between State Councilor Yang Jiechi and U.S. National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, China is seeking “other opportunities to maintain healthy interaction,” Ruan said.
Trump and his family have also been in close touch with Chinese businesses. Trump met last month with Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., to discuss creating jobs in the U.S. The New York Times reported that Kushner met with Wu Xiaohui, chairman of Anbang Group Insurance Group Co Ltd., last November to finalize a business deal.
The Chinese government has been “testing and trying” different ways to avoid a major confrontation with the U.S. based on miscalculations, said Wang Fan, director of China Foreign Affairs University’s Institute of International Relations. Ma’s visit to Trump Tower was an example of that approach, he said.
So far, it’s unclear what impact the moves might have on Trump himself. He still hasn’t set up a call with Xi despite having called more than a dozen world leaders since his inauguration on January 20.
Even so, for China, Trump’s family may be the best hope for stable U.S. relations. Trump’s choice for ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, continues to serve as governor in Iowa, following a strict hands-off policy on China matters until after he’s confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
“At this moment, there is no obvious China point person in his cabinet,” said Wang, of the China Foreign Affairs University. “All the previous China hands have gone.”