Trump, Xi, and the World’s Most Important Relationship

BY ITAMAR WAKSMAN

President Donald Trump sits with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump sits with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

It is no secret that China is one of Donald Trump’s favorite scapegoats. Throughout his presidential campaign and the early days of his administration, Trump has continuously used China to excite his base: working-class whites who have lost manufacturing jobs in the last several decades due to technology and import competition. Trump has previously claimed that China is “raping” the United States, referring to the multi-billion dollar trade deficit between the U.S. and China, and he promised to go as far as imposing a 45 percent tariff on all Chinese goods in defense of U.S. economic solvency. However, on April 6 and 7, as the 45th president of the United States hosted Chinese president and chairman Xi Jinping at Trump’s famed Mar-a-Lago resort in southern Florida, Trump’s strongman act gave way to the nuanced realities of statecraft. Instead of using the summit as a stage to spew his bombastic, nationalistic rhetoric to the cheers of his supporters, Trump sat down with his Chinese counterpart and began to understand the realities of the relationship between the United States and China.

When the Trump administration reached out this early in Trump’s presidency to their Chinese counterparts for the two leaders to meet, many saw the summit as premature. Trump and his administration have yet to come up with a specific China policy, finding themselves caught between the skeleton of Obama’s pivot to Asia and the rhetoric of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Additionally, Trump has yet to fill hundreds of high-level positions within the state department, meaning that few personnel were actually available for the summit’s lengthy preparations. However, the meeting happened because of the political needs of both leaders. Xi, who is currently consolidating power as China’s “core” leader, is looking towards autumn and the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, during which Xi will be able to stack the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top policy-making body, with his allies, improving his chances of holding on to power after 2022, the end of his second term as president. A victory over his American adversary, or at least the opportunity to frame himself as one of the world’s most important leaders, will put him in a strong position in the eyes of the Chinese people and political elites. Trump has suffered numerous defeats and few victories so far in his administration, especially his and his party’s failure to repeal and replace the ACA, a signature campaign promise for every Republican in the last seven years. Coupled with his historically low approval rating, the president needs anything that could possibly improve his image, especially in anticipation of a difficult fight over tax reform. Thus, a much anticipated meeting between the two personalities seemed just right for the current political climate.

The summit seems to have gone well, providing an opportunity for the two leaders to begin cultivating a relationship. Despite expectations of controversy over Trump’s usual banter, the president was cordial and diplomatic, even claiming that the two leaders had “developed a friendship” during the meeting. Also, the meeting was “positive and fruitful” according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua, demonstrating that Trump’s counterpart welcomed his behavior. On the issue of communication, both leaders agreed to create a replacement for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), a yearly conference created during the Obama administration to facilitate greater dialogue between the two countries’ top leaders. The replacement will encompass four different areas: security and diplomacy, economics and trade, law enforcement and cybersecurity, and social and people-to-people exchanges. While the specifics of the new mechanism have yet to be announced, the move demonstrates that both nations are still aware that clear, direct dialogue is important to ensuring stability in the world. Additionally, at the summit Trump and Xi agreed to create a bold “100 day plan” to tackle trade issues, though the details have yet to be discussed. The plan is designed to signal “growing rapport between the two countries,” according to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, especially at a time when resentment over trade with China seems to be increasing.

But most interesting are the subject areas that were left unchanged or untouched during the meeting, specifically North Korea, maritime disputes, and Taiwan. Beyond agreeing that North Korea’s nuclear program was beginning to be a problem for regional stability, both sides could not come to any kind of compromise in forming a coherent plan to contain North Korea. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left the option of military action against North Korea on the table, the Chinese have continued to emphasize that a military attack would be unacceptable; China has even discouraged sanctions. Trump and Xi seem to have realized that their two nations hold vastly divergent interests in relation to North Korea. While an exchange seems to have taken place over the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas, the Chinese were unwilling to change their official position and instead stressed the need for both militaries to stick to standard military protocol when their warships met. This continued the status quo in the region, with Xi admitting that the U.S. will continue to sail its navy in the seas while the Chinese will continue increasing their defense systems. The subject of Taiwan, which many predicted Trump would use as a bargaining chip to gain trade concessions from China, was entirely ignored by both sides, signalling the seriousness of China’s commitment to the “One China Principle” and the need of the U.S. to respect it to even have an open dialogue. When it came to touchy subject matters that demonstrate direct conflict between the two powers, neither side seemed willing to create controversy in pursuit of policy.

While it is important that the relationship between the U.S. and China was further cultivated through the recent summit between the two nations’ leaders, little of consequence came from it. Both leaders seemed to be more interested in gaining a political victory than actually dealing with the fundamental issues between their respective nations. While the leaders improved channels of dialogue and both nations’ top leaders and diplomats had the opportunity to begin building personal relationships, 24 hours was simply not long enough to tackle the hot points between both countries. Xi can now go back to Beijing with his head held high, making sure that his critics have no fuel to attack him with and a collection of new pictures showing him smiling next to the leader of the free world. Conversely, Trump can use the positive feelings of the summit as evidence of his talent as a negotiator and statesman, reaffirming to his base and many discouraged moderates and conservatives that he does, in fact, belong in the oval office. But the two leaders have simply further delayed the inevitable clash between the two nations. It is only a matter of time until a moment of great friction happens between China and the U.S., such as a military strike against North Korea or a naval incident in the South China Sea. As China’s relative power continues to rise, the prospect of conflict becomes increasingly dangerous to the stability and security of the international system. Simply delaying any confrontation over the issues is nothing more than procrastination. The U.S. and China will have to rely on diplomacy and compromise to find a solution to their disagreements, or they risk setting the stage for another world war. Hopefully, this meeting will have developed enough good feelings to work together when conflict inevitably precipitates.

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