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China-US relations

Personal touch needed to boost Sino-US relations

A summit between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump can’t resolve all problems but, if the two men get along, it would be a good start

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 March, 2017, 1:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 March, 2017, 1:03am

After a tense period in Sino-US relations under the Trump administration over security and trade, top-level diplomacy appears to have put them on a positive track. Warm exchanges between President Xi Jinping (習近平) and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during talks in Beijing are expected to pave the way for the first meeting between Xi and President Donald Trump next month. A push for common ground came after friction up to the 11th hour over North Korea, with Trump complaining that China had done little to contain its ally and Tillerson saying a military option was on the table.

But hot-button issues were set aside as Xi complimented Tillerson on his efforts to achieve a smooth transition in the relationship and the latter said Trump looked forward to improving understanding with his counterpart. State media also quoted Xi as saying he and Trump had maintained good relations through phone conversations and messages and reached a consensus to improve exchanges.

There remain concerns, however, about US reports Tillerson has been sidelined, raising questions over the secretary of state’s influence on decisions, as opposed to that of the inner circle of advisers at the White House. The bilateral summit will be a test.

Tillerson’s fence-mending trip to China ends in push for common ground

The two leaders will sit down with different but interdependent priorities. Washington will want Beijing’s help to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities. Beijing will want Washington to erase any lingering doubts about its commitment to the one-China principle, created by Trump’s anti-China rhetoric and an ill-judged post-election phone call with Taiwan’s leader. Trump’s phone call with Xi last month, during which he pledged to abide by the principle and push for common goals, was an ice-breaker that precipitated a flurry of diplomatic activity culminating in the Xi-Tillerson meeting.

Regardless of Tillerson’s influence in the administration, the one-China message is very clear and non-negotiable. In the run up to the summit, both sides need to continue to strive for common ground and eliminate any perception of a gap between them on this issue. After all, if Trump does not reassure Xi he cannot expect China to be very cooperative about anything. That said, Xi would not agree to the summit without clear understandings on this count.

Right up to the summit, however, there may be hiccups because Trump can be expected to use tactics to gain the upper hand. Ultimately he wants trade and economic deals with China that will create the domestic jobs he promised voters. One summit will not surmount complex issues like North Korea and trade relations. But if the two leaders can get along personally, that will be a good start.