Why you should care

Because the U.S.–China relationship is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Most of the time, Cui Tiankai’s job is to be the warm schmoozer. As China’s U.S. ambassador, Cui is at the center of the world’s most important bilateral relationship — the superpower and its strong-minded and soaring competitor. The fluent English speaker has even been known to pop up at the Super Bowl. But sometimes, Cui shows his fierce side. “We don’t want a trade war, but we are not afraid of it,” Cui said in remarks the embassy posted on its recently created Facebook page last month, from an interview with China Global Television Network. “If people want to play tough, we will play tough with them and see who will last longer. We will fight to the end.”

Amid escalating tensions over trade, Cui continues his quest to nail down a go-to contact in President Donald Trump’s ever-evolving administration. It could be a parlor game for the Washington diplomatic corps, if it weren’t so serious.

Nobody in China knew how to deal with the Trump administration. Ambassador Cui was instrumental in developing and consolidating that relationship.

Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington

In the early days after Trump’s election victory — which stunned world capitals as much as it did Washington — Cui found his China whisperer. With an introduction by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in December 2016, Cui began cultivating Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. As Kushner and Ivanka Trump decamped from New York to take up their new White House posts alongside her father, they soon moved into Cui’s neighborhood in Washington’s tony Kalorama district. Ivanka and their then-5-year-old daughter were guests at the Chinese Embassy’s Lunar New Year party in February 2017.

Kushner’s frequent meetings with the ambassador, combined with Jared and Ivanka’s separate businesses related to China and scrutiny of Kushner’s Russia meetings, have since clouded the close ties and put Kushner in the crosshairs of special counsel Robert Mueller. But not before momentarily triumphant meetings between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida and Beijing raised optimism that the rivals could, at minimum, agree on the rules of the game.

It would make the world breathe a little easier. The two nations’ political, economic and military competition throws off dangerous sparks on a regular basis — over North Korea’s nuclear program, the status of Taiwan, military dominance in the South China Sea and the U.S. trade deficit that exceeded $375 billion in 2017. In goods alone, China is the U.S.’ largest trading partner, and Trump often railed during his presidential campaign that Beijing was playing dirty to achieve its trade surplus.

So when Trump won, “China was panicked,” says Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Cui certainly had the credentials to stage a rescue. A career diplomat with a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, he doesn’t pull punches. He has served as ambassador to Japan, where he publicly accused his host government of underplaying its role in World War II. When Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, Cui, by then the vice foreign minister, tried — mostly unsuccessfully — to pressure other governments to boycott the ceremony. But in 2012, he convinced the Chinese government to let activist Chen Guangcheng go, after he took shelter in the U.S. embassy in Beijing and sought safe passage to America.

“Nobody in China knew how to deal with the Trump administration,” says Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington. “Ambassador Cui was instrumental in developing and consolidating that relationship.” (The Chinese embassy did not respond to requests for comment.)

Married with one daughter, Cui has longtime connections with a range of current and former American officials. “This is somebody who knows his host country extremely well,” says Stephen Orlins, president of the National Committee on U.S.–China Relations, a New York–based educational nonprofit that maintains close ties with the embassy and Beijing. Orlins adds that Cui is a strong communicator who is often “warm, generous and thoughtful” in public and private. An accomplished amateur calligrapher, Cui helped design the logo for the Kissinger Institute, Daly says. He tracks popular culture too: In 2014, he told a Beijing conference that he watched the Netflix series House of Cards and saw parallels with real-life Washington.

Professionally, he gained the confidence of Xi and remained in his U.S. post beyond the usual retirement age of 65 — he’s 67 this year — making him the longest-serving Chinese ambassador to the U.S. since the countries established diplomatic relations in 1979. So Cui is likely to be rotated out within a year, if not sooner. But first, China will need him to find a replacement China whisperer in the administration. Kushner has been sidelined with the loss of his top-secret access to meetings over delays in finalizing his security clearance. “They, like any foreign embassy in D.C., have had to put massive amounts of effort — much more than under a previous administration — into trying to figure out who to talk to,” says Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism newsletter.

In recent weeks, more new faces have arrived, from secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo to national security adviser John Bolton. To face the new hawks, a trade-focused president and a delicate planned U.S.–North Korea summit, China is likely to keep its experienced hand in place for now. “They see him as the most effective person at a very difficult time,” says Ken Lieberthal, a Brookings Institution scholar and former Asia director on the White House National Security Council.

And so the perilous parlor game continues.

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