Trump and Xi meet Thursday
The two-day summit takes place in Mar-a-Lago
It’s a blind date with global ramifications.
President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping meet for the first time Thursday and will seek to forge a connection and to stabilize the world’s most important diplomatic relationship, despite a gulf between them in experience, temperament and global outlook.
Both have a long way to come to meet in the middle.
Trump, the brash, outspoken, political novice who seems to give little mind to policy details, anchored his campaign on China bashing. He once warned that China had committed “rape” against the US economy and tweeted that global warming was a Chinese ruse to damage US manufacturing.
Xi, though more prone to depart from his talking points than his predecessor Hu Jintao, spent decades navigating treacherous Communist Party politics, and speaks in the formal diction of Chinese statesmanship, where words and linguistic formulae for defining diplomatic relationships matter above all.
Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, and is flexing Chinese power in Asia on behalf of a nation still on the ascent.
Trump’s political position is far more precarious. He’s the most unpopular new American president since pollsters began assessing approval ratings. He took office at a time when US power in Asia is seen to be ebbing, to China’s advantage. And the President’s decision to pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal might have been seen as a win by his supporters, but was seen in Asia as a harbinger of a US retreat.
But despite their differences, when the two leaders sit down at Trump’s luxury club at Mar-a-Lago they will have share one thing that might help them forge common experience – the summit requires both to navigate delicate domestic politics.
What Xi needs
Xi, despite establishing a firm grip on his country during his first five-year mandate, is maneuvering ahead of the next Communist Party Congress in the fall, that he hopes to use to solidify his power for his second five-year term.
He therefore needs a smooth summit that will avoid rocking the international system or the markets in a way that could threaten political stability back home – where despite China’s growing power in its own right, management of the relationship with Washington is still one of the most important legacy items for Chinese leaders. And Xi, his strong political position notwithstanding, is not without enemies, partly due to the ferocity of his anti-corruption campaign targeting bloated Communist Party cadres.
He has little room for missteps in his summit with Trump so may have an interest in accommodating the US leader.
Xi must at all costs head off a destabilizing trade war – one possibility if Trump follows through on his threats to impose tariffs on Chinese goods.
Yet should Trump come out with guns blazing on issues like the economy and China’s failure to do more to rein in North Korea, Xi will also be under pressure to respond in kind, making the mood of the summit difficult to predict.
“He would want to avoid any sense that he had been humiliated,” said Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist of the Financial Times and author of a new book “Easternization” about Asia’s rise and the ebbing of power to the region from America and the West.
“Xi’s whole shtick … is that he is the man who is going to deliver the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people. China under him has clearly become tougher in its outlook to the rest of the world,” Rachman added. “If he were to appear to have been faced down by Trump … that would be difficult for him.”
What Trump needs
Trump has his own reasons to hope for a successful summit. Seventy plus days in, his presidency is in a state of crisis – often because of the actions, comments and tweets of the President himself. The world is deeply curious about how he will lead, and foreign leaders are on alert for any signs of weakness or indications that he is not up to the job of President.
Trump has also created a political box for himself. He’s under pressure to make good on his own campaign trail promises to turn the US trading relationship with China on its head. And he warned ahead of the summit that it could be a rocky one because of what he sees as disparities in the economic relationship.
“The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Trump is meanwhile warning that if China doesn’t crack down on its ally North Korea of its ballistic missile and nuclear program, Washington will take unspecified steps that Beijing might oppose.
But in other areas, Trump has already significantly softened his approach towards the Asian giant. He for example failed to honor his vow to designate Beijing a currency manipulator on day one of his administration and has taken no significant steps to reorient an imbalance in trading flows.
The President has already bowed to Chinese demands that he agree to abide by the “One China” policy, after he suggested he could use the status of US relations with Taiwan as a bargaining chip in trade talks with Beijing.
Washington has also softened its rhetoric on China’s territorial muscling in the South China Sea – there has been no repeat of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s warning in his confirmation hearing that China might need to be blocked from artificial islands it has built in the region.
Will Trump’s unpredictability help him?
In fact, there is some confusion around the world as to exactly what US policy towards China actually is.
“I think it’s a mess, I think they are all over the place. Maybe the significance of this summit is that we will finally get a steer as to which way they are heading,” said Rachman.
In one sense, that uncertainty over Trump’s intentions, as well as his inexperience and lack of a long-term grounding in US-China relations, may give the US leader a paradoxical advantage, in that the Chinese side cannot be sure exactly what approach he will take and how he will behave and whether he will stick to the diplomatic frameworks that have defined US-China relations for decades.
Americans who have spent time in Beijing says that the Chinese leadership – like much of the rest of the world – is still trying to figure Trump out.
To begin with, these analysts say, China viewed Trump as the kind of Republican who talked tough on the campaign trail but would settle into conventional behavior towards Beijing once he recognized the stakes, as president. His history as a businessman furthered an impression that the new US leader was someone who would look to bargain and seek deals.
But Trump’s decision to accept a telephone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen – becoming the first president or president-elect to do so – shook Chinese leaders and led them to question their initial assumptions and to game out the potential for a more adversarial relationship with the United States.
“From the Chinese point of view, there is real uncertainty about what to expect from Trump. They are not sure,” said Aaron Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, who formerly worked in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.
“I think they worry that the new administration could be tougher and/or less predictable than its predecessor. At the same time, they do continue to talk about Trump as a deal maker, Trump as a pragmatist, they see him as more potentially more flexible, less ideological and therefore someone with whom they can make a deal,” he said.