As Trump and Xi prepare to meet, an opportunity for a Sino-US grand deal presents itself
Victor Nee says that, despite their starkly different personalities, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping actually have much in common. Now, with reciprocal visits all but sealed, it remains to be seen how the two presidents steer the bilateral relationship
US President Donald Trump has embarked on an unprecedented form of foreign policy, using his Twitter account to remake the world order. One pole of any emergent world order is China. Here, his provocations, including the phone call with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, off-the-cuff remarks on rethinking the US stance on the one-China policy, and campaign charges labelling China a currency manipulator, are nothing less than confrontational.
Yet, Trump has had what he describes as a very friendly phone conversation with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping (習近平). What does this mean for the future of an uncertain US-China relationship?
Under the surface of Trump’s bluster and China’s quiet diplomacy are two countries led by men who have much in common. Both are nationalists seeking to restore their country’s greatness. Trump’s campaign to “make America great again” and Xi’s “Chinese dream” both aim to achieve nationalist restoration.
Both men inherited the capital that launched their careers. Trump came into his financial capital from his father’s real estate business, and Xi was a princeling and heir to the political capital of his father, a respected leader of the Chinese communist revolution.
Both men used their inherited capital to launch ambitious careers in their own ways. Trump built a global brand, and far-flung real estate and brand-name empire. Xi turned to a political career after graduating from Tsinghua University, first serving as personal secretary to a powerful member of the Politburo and then taking an unusual turn in assuming a job in Hebei ( 河北 ) province, as a deputy party secretary of a rural county. From there, he began a swift ascent from provincial leadership to the commanding heights of the country’s political elite.
However, though Trump and Xi inherited their respective forms of capital, both believe they are self-made. Of course, similarities in personal background come with obvious differences in personality. Trump is impulsive in responding to perceived criticism. He is thin-skinned, and quick to hit back with insults and counterpunches vented through hyperbole. Xi, by contrast, is an engineer by training, and is methodical and detailed in his planning and political moves.
Trump, as the self-proclaimed consummate dealmaker, and Xi as the chemical engineer, see in their newfound relationship an opportunity for a grand deal between the US and China. This is, after all, what was behind their mutual invitations to visit each other’s countries, with Xi reportedly set to visit Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida early next month.
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The outline of a bilateral deal has yet to be negotiated, but there is little doubt that it will involve Taiwan, bilateral trade and national security.
What will be the elements of a grand deal revitalising a strained relationship between the US and China? First, that there won’t be a war between the two over shoals in the South China Sea or the uninhabited Diaoyu, or Senkaku, islands, claimed by both China and Japan. Second, Trump will have the bilateral trade deal he wants from China, even while the Chinese economy gains momentum, stimulated by free-trade agreements with other countries in the Asia-Pacific .
Taiwan will not become independent and, with other East Asian “tigers”, will move towards closer social and possibly political accommodation with the mainland. Taiwan’s economy is already closely linked with that of the mainland. North Korea’s nuclear blackmail will be curbed, if not checked, through effective sanctions imposed by China and the US. This could make the installation of a US-South Korea anti-missile shield (THAAD) a lower priority, given reduced tension on the Korean peninsula.
What contributes to the likelihood of a grand deal boils down to good feng shui shared structurally by the two Pacific Rim superpowers. The US and China are separated by a vast ocean, but their economies are tethered by an increasingly wide range of mutual interests and dependence – and by two leaders who surprisingly share much in common.
Victor Nee is the Frank and Rosa Rhodes Professor at Cornell University. He is completing a decade-long study of the emergence of modern capitalism in China, and author of Capitalism from Below: Markets and Institutional Change in China