CHINA’S President Xi Jinping will touch down at the opulent Mar-a-Lago Florida resort on Thursday ahead of his meeting with resort owner and US president, Donald Trump, in what some are calling Trump’s biggest test as a world leader.
By Trump’s own admission, the meeting promises to be a “difficult” one. There will be little cosying up and back slapping at this first meet between the two leaders of the world’s biggest economies.
The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
While both imposing and ambitious, the differences in temperament, background and agendas between the two are stark.
Overseeing an authoritarian government, Xi enjoys unchallenged authority and relies on rigid decorum and a tightly choreographed approach when conducting foreign affairs.
Trump by comparison is a diplomatic neophyte currently suffering from historically low approval ratings back home, the failure of his healthcare bill and an ongoing investigation into his administration’s ties to Russia.
In the lead-up to today’s summit, Trump has made little effort to ease tensions between the two superpowers. His erratic and confrontational behaviour has Chinese officials rattled by his willingness to make brash statements online and not stick to the usual niceties of modern-day diplomacy.
Beijing’s hope of smoothing out bilateral ties at the meet “has been complicated by the uncertainties generated by Trump’s hostile Twitter posts and the mixed signals emanating from different parts of the administration,” economist Eswar Prasad told The New York Times.
Trump has attempted to set the tone for the meet not just through his tweets and bombastic campaign rhetoric, but through his recent signings of two Executive Orders – one launching a report on the impact of trade abuses on the US trade deficit, a charge commonly laid at China’s feet, and a second imposing stricter enforcement of US anti-dumping laws – something China has run afoul of in the past.
On Thursday morning, Trump also conducted talks with South Korea regarding the growing threat of North Korea and agreed to proceed with the deployment of an advanced US missile defence system, which has angered China, just hours before meeting with Xi.
But coming in to the talks, despite his combative method, it is Trump who has the most to ask and Xi with the least to lose.
“Xi does not need to get very much, the mere fact of the meeting looks good and will play well domestically in China,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the China power project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, told The Guardian.
“It demonstrates he has a good relationship with the new president and can maintain a stable relationship with the US. Xi doesn’t have any big asks, whereas Trump does.”
Xi comes to the table knowing everything the Trump administration wants and Chinese analysts say Xi will enter Thursday’s meeting confident he can quash any unrest on North Korea and trade – Trump’s two biggest talking points.
China also feels it is coming to the table with a US that has already weakened its negotiating position by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The international trade agreement, spearheaded by the Obama administration, would have represented a clear statement of US influence in the Asia-Pacific region. The move to pull out will only serve to embolden China and increase alliances.
Trump, on the other hand, has a wealth of demands to put on China and with his vocal proclamations to “keep winning”, the pressure is on the so-far-ineffectual president to deliver.
Trump’s big asks
Trade has been top of the agenda throughout his candidacy and into his term. After running a reported US$347 billion deficit last year, Trump has been quick to label China a cheat, pointing out it’s “rape” of the US and claiming it is “killing” America on trade.
A senior White House official said on Tuesday the US would look to “reduce the systemic trade and investment barriers they’ve (China) created.”
Trump will need to push Xi to reduce the Chinese government’s heavy-handed regulation of its economy to lower the barriers of access to its economy for US companies, David Dollar, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, told CNN.
Addressing high tariffs on certain goods and labour standards that make Chinese manufacturers more competitive will be a major part of this, and discussions on China’s abuse of US intellectual property will also attempt to level the playing field.
According to the Global Times, a Chinese state-owned media company, should such requests be made, Xi will have reprisals ready such as ending purchases of grains from the heartland, ordering passenger aircraft from Airbus instead of Boeing and clamping down on the sales of American microchips and phones.
Fighting for space at the top of the agenda will also be the growing threat of North Korea.
The US has made clear they feel China is not doing enough to combat the unpredictable regime and their growing nuclear ambitions.
North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been “playing” the United States for years. China has done little to help!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 17, 2017
The increasingly volatile situation intensified further on Wednesday when North Korea fired a ballistic missile into waters off its east coast. The defiant act served to exacerbate the potential conflict and heighten tensions between the two leaders ahead of talks.
Satellite images also show preparations from a sixth nuclear test are underway in North Korea with speculation Kim Jong Un could be planning a test during this week’s summit.
Despite Trump’s assertions the US was prepared to act alone to stop North Korea, the far more preferable option would be for China to exert its influence on Pyongyang – meaning the US needs China’s help.
According to Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, Xi is prepared for Trump to press for more economic punishment against North Korea for its expanding nuclear weapons programme
But he said Xi would likely establish a “strategic bottom line” North Korea must serve as a buffer zone against the potential of a unified Korean Peninsula dominated by the American military.
China has little to gain from a stabilised Korea but strategically has a lot to lose. To get them to act will take far more than the promise of peace in the region.
Washington has signalled a willingness to strong-arm Beijing into assisting with North Korea by using trade as a bargaining chip.
In an interview with the Financial Times last weekend, Trump declared, “I think trade is the incentive. It is all about trade,” when asked about Chinese cooperation on the matter.
But the efficacy of this approach will have to wait to be seen. Despite all of his tough talk on curbing Chinese trade abuses, Trump is yet to communicate what he is prepared to offer China in return.
As the dollar floundered on Thursday morning, weighed down by caution over the impending summit, it is clear there is a lot riding on this meeting. Not only will it set the tone for one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world today, but it has the potential to shape the economic and geopolitical landscape of Asia-Pacific and the world for a long time to come.