Are Ivanka’s Personal Interests Influencing China Policy?

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
The Cipher Brief

On April 6 – the same day Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner dined with President Xi and his wife at Mar-a-Lago – the Chinese government provisionally approved three of the trademarks, according to the Associated Press, effectively giving Ivanka’s company monopoly rights to sell her brand of accessories and spa services in the massive Chinese economy. Was Ivanka Trump, who has extensive business interests in China, a factor leading Donald Trump to change his previously tough approach to Beijing?

China was a punching bag for candidate Trump, and his attacks on its trade policies were a guaranteed crowd pleaser during 2016 campaign rallies.

During the transition, Trump kept up pummeling Beijing, first by taking an unprecedented congratulatory call on December 2 from Taiwan’s President. Ten days later, during a December 12 Fox News interview, then President-elect Trump said, “We’re being hurt very badly by China with devaluation; with [their] taxing us heavy at the borders when we don’t tax them; with [their] building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn’t be doing; and, frankly, with not helping us at all with North Korea.”

On Fox News and in mid-January during a Wall Street Journal interview, Trump suggested that the U.S. long-standing acceptance of Beijing’s “One China” policy – Washington’s recognition there is only one Chinese government and it was not Taiwan – could be changed.

This led to a sharp rebuke from the Chinese government, and a frigidity in relations set in.

After Trump was inaugurated president, almost two weeks went by and there was no phone call between him and Chinese President Xi Jinping, although he had spoken to more than a dozen other leaders.

Enter Ivanka Trump.

On February 1, Ivanka and her five-year-old daughter, Arabella Kushner, showed up as surprise guests at the Chinese Embassy near the end of its evening New Year’s reception celebrating the year of the rooster.

The next morning, Ivanka posted a video of Arabella, playing with a traditional Chinese marionette, while she was singing a song in Mandarin she had learned for the Chinese new year. Ivanka captioned it, “Wishing everyone an amazing year to come during these days of celebration. 新年快乐”

It has since been viewed by some 18 million people.

In a 2012 interview with the South China Post Magazine, Ivanka said, “I have an incredible Chinese nanny,” adding that the nanny had started teaching Mandarin Chinese to Arabella when she was 18 months old. The interviewer wrote that Ivanka “has been on a charm offensive with China, using her children to help woo the Chinese public.”

The reaction to Ivanka’s New Year’s visit was reflected in the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper, The Global Times. It reported that Ivanka could be a balance to her father’s “harsh posture” and the appearance “could be invigorating to the China-U.S. relationship.”

Seven days later, on February 8, a letter from President Trump was hand delivered to the Chinese wishing China “a prosperous Year of the Rooster” and adding that he looked forward to “develop a constructive relationship” with President Xi.

The next day, February 9, in a late evening phone call to Xi, Trump walked back his previous comments and said the U.S. would continue to honor the “One China” policy.

It was clear that private diplomacy went on in conjunction with Ivanka’s more public activities. But she was not finished.

Prior to the face-to-face April 6 Mar-a-Lago meeting between Xi and Trump, Ivanka posted a photo of Theodore, her one-year-old, stacking building blocks with Chinese letters, showing he, too, was learning Mandarin.

Then on April 7, Arabella and Joseph, Ivanka’s three-year-old son, who also speaks some Mandarin, were introduced by Jared Kushner and Ivanka to President Xi and China’s First Lady, Peng Liyuan. Arabella then sang a popular Chinese folk song and recited Chinese poetry, which Ivanka posted on Twitter.

Trump would later say he believed those initial meetings made “tremendous progress” in the U.S.-China relationship.

Ivanka’s role has also had a positive effect on her image in China, where she is already a feminist role model for its younger generation.

This was not the first, but the fourth Arabella Chinese New Year’s performance posted by Ivanka, whose companies, Ivanka Trump Collection and IvankaTrump.com, sell many of their labeled consumer goods that are made in China.

Although she has withdrawn from active participation in her companies, she has kept her ownership by putting it into the Ivanka M. Trump Business Trust, worth an estimated $50 million. The trustees are her husband Jared’s siblings, Josh Kushner and Nicole Meyer.

In addition, Ivanka Trump companies have 26 trademark applications submitted to Chinese authorities in May and June last year for items such as skin-care and cleansing products, leather goods, purses, suitcases, umbrellas, dresses, other clothes and computer software.

On April 6 – the same day Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner dined with President Xi and his wife at Mar-a-Lago – the Chinese government provisionally approved three of the trademarks, according to the Associated Press, effectively giving Ivanka’s company monopoly rights to sell her brand of accessories and spa services in the massive Chinese economy.

Although their founder and owner is now in the White House, her company is expanding.

In a March 7 interview in the fashion magazine Refinery29, the Ivanka Trump brand’s president, Abigail Klem, said she is looking to place the Ivanka Trump line into 1,000 new stores and launch an e-commerce site. In addition, Klem said that despite negative press, including Nordstom’s February cancelling of the line, the brand had seen a surge in customers.

When she left the company, Ivanka kept the “#WomenWhoWork, a kind of hashtag-turned-mission statement of the brand,” Klem said. “She actually feels like she’s living the mission.”

Has Ivanka found a way to work in government in a way that also has the effect of adding to her own personal wealth?

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Price for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at wpincus@thecipherbrief.com.

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