External Affairs

Trump-Xi Summit Will Test One, Not the Other

US experts are raging at Trump’s haste, just as Chinese experts are serene they have the upper hand.

Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. Credit: Reuters

Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. Credit: Reuters

Washington: Has US President Donald Trump lost the game with China even before it started?

An early summit meeting with President Xi Jinping before the Trump team has a cogent China policy in place gives Beijing a definite advantage. Washington is distracted and consumed by dozens of domestic battles over healthcare reform and Russian meddling.

US experts are raging at Trump’s haste just as Chinese experts are serene they have the upper hand. Ely Ratner, who was former vice president Joe Biden’s adviser, has called hosting Xi at Mar-a-Lago a “big step in the wrong direction,” especially if Trump wanted to get tough on China.

Trump has given away his “single most valuable asset” of denying a meeting to Xi until Beijing “truly” delivered on US demands such as addressing unfair trade practices and pressuring North Korea, Ratner wrote. “Instead, Trump will be showering Xi with legitimacy and bolstering his influence at home and abroad.”

Trump’s blow hot-blow cold routine on China is intriguing but doesn’t inspire confidence against a supremely practiced set of players. Last-minute executive orders to review US trade policy and identify causes of the massive trade deficit, as Trump did on March 31, will bear fruit but down the line, if any.

By then there will be too much business as usual.

Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross tried to up the ante ahead of the summit: “If anyone had any doubt about the president’s resolve to fix the trade problems, these two executive orders should end that speculation now and for all time.” Standing next to Trump, he continued, “This marks the beginning of the totally new chapter in the American trade relationship with our partners overseas.”

The response from the Chinese: humour the Americans. Tweeting threats, as Trump did last week, that the meeting with China would be “a very difficult one” didn’t quite cut it.

The Chinese squashed that one down with aplomb, saying they will bring massive investment pledges that would be eminently “tweetable,” according to The Washington Post. Shen Dingli, a prominent Chinese expert, told the newspaper Xi intends “to give Trump a victory” because Trump’s main goals – more jobs and investments – are the “easiest to meet”.

Indeed. The Chinese are as confident as the Trump White House is confused. The end result might be a repeat of the Obama administration’s mistakes – an American acceptance of China’s “core” interests in exchange for promises to work on the trade issue.

Xi comes to the US with the wind at his back – a riveting performance at Davos championing free trade, a disciplined Communist Party at his service and a couple of US allies in his pocket to boot. He appears confident he can calm American outrage with loosened purse strings. Photos of Xi walking with Trump at his vacation home in Florida will do the rest and seal the image as “equals”.

Early optimism in Asian capitals that Trump would push back against Chinese muscle flexing in Asia because of his strong stand during the campaign against Beijing’s belligerence has given way to a wary let’s-wait-and-watch attitude.

The tough talk has melted and all indications from the “background briefing” prior to the summit are for a return to working in a “constructive manner” and set a “framework for discussions on trade and investment.” What could be more predictable than that?

In addition, the Trump administration quietly put a notice in the Federal Register saying the US will review China’s designation as a “non-market economy,” something the Chinese have wanted for years but Americans have used as a pressure point. It is a big carrot to throw before the summit.

But that seems to be Trump’s style. He quickly came back to the “One China” policy in February after an all-too-short flirtation with Taiwan and there will be no “surprising deviation” from that during the summit, the White House briefer said.

After Trump’s brief adventure with Taiwan, secretary of state Rex Tillerson had a strange, off-kilter visit to Beijing where he apparently shunned his own embassy. He adopted Chinese language of “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” as the basis of bilateral relations. It is code for letting China free to roam the seas and dominate Asia.

The return to standard procedure on China has come, no doubt, under the advice of old China hands such as Henry Kissinger, a life-long member of the friends-of-China club, and others who can’t envision anything different. Kissinger Associates has lobbied on behalf of Chinese interests and US corporations with large footprints in China.

Apparently Kissinger traveled to Beijing in December at Trump’s request to deliver a personal message to Xi who in turn asked for an early summit. Who wouldn’t, especially if Kissinger is the messenger?

Kissinger is said to have worked with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law to tamp down the anti-China rhetoric. This runs against the instincts of other Trump advisers, especially Stephen Bannon and Peter Navarro. But they clearly have less influence than Kushner.

From Xi’s point of view, nothing could be better – a summit with Trump where he plays world statesman, sending a clear signal to the Communist Party on his stature before the important party conclave later this year. A trade war with the US would have spoiled that play somewhat.

In addition, that Xi is being hosted at the same resort where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe played golf with Trump means the Chinese leader robs his Japanese rival of bragging rights.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.