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Trump and China: What's at stake?
01:26 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Trump and Xi meet Thursday

The two-day summit takes place in Mar-a-Lago

CNN  — 

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.

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Trump prepares for critical meeting with Xi
02:58 - Source: CNN

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.”