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What can China do to save Sino-US ties with Donald Trump in charge?

Xi Jinping and the new US president should meet quickly, while Beijing should refrain from angry responses and create chances for dialogue, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 1:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 11:23pm

President Xi Jinping should reach out to his American counterpart Donald Trump and send his personal envoy to Washington as early as possible to defuse growing tensions with the new administration, US experts have suggested.

Xi should also consider meeting Trump, who was officially sworn in on Friday, and take proactive steps on issues of critical interest to the new US president, such as North Korea and economic cooperation, as a gesture of goodwill, they say.

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Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said developing personal ties and reaching out to an unconventional leader like Trump in the early days of his administration could imbue the US-China relations with special significance, especially given the uncertainty surrounding ties.

“A personal meeting [between Xi and Trump] will help, but I think it depends on how the meeting goes,” she said.

According to Economy, Trump thrives on personal connections.

“Absolutely, getting to know somebody, developing a personal relationship with somebody, I think for this president – more than maybe any president in the recent past – will be critical,” she said.

She said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a “very smart” decision to travel to New York to become the first foreign leader to meet Trump right after his election victory in November.

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Paul Haenle, the director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, agreed the two leaders should meet as soon as possible.

“The G20 in July is a natural time for them to meet in a bilateral setting, but we should be open to exploring an even earlier meeting,” said Haenle, a former national security official under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Wang Huiyao, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation in Beijing,

said a mechanism for direct communication, one built upon personal trust between the two leaders, would be preferable to any third-party channel.

But Stephen Yates, a former deputy national security adviser to former US vice-president Dick Cheney who is known for his close ties with the Trump administration, said Xi and Trump were unlikely to meet before the end of the year, considering the difficulty in arranging such an event.

“The first chance for the presidents to meet probably would be at the Apec (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit [in Vietnam in November],” he said.

Yates said Trump would likely skip the G20 summit in Germany in July because “it has been a waste of everyone’s time”.

“But it would be really unusual if he did not attend Apec. On the margins of Apec, it would be the latest [opportunity] for a face-to-face meeting to take place,” he said.

Yates said Xi could be invited to Washington sooner, but it was “not very likely because usually during the first year in an administration you need to go through the formalities of state visits by allies”.

Both leaders could also have other priorities such as trade negotiations to deal with first.

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“I don’t think the timing matters that much. Experts get anxious about things. World leaders are working on things and they know we are not going to war. I don’t know that’s there an urgent emergency, especially since China is unlikely to adjust its policy in a significant way,” he said.

Instead, Beijing could send its senior envoy to meet Trump and other top White House officials as soon as next month or March, as it did during the early days of the George W. Bush administration.

The Washington visit by then vice-premier Qian Qichen in March 2001, just two months after Bush took office, came at a sensitive time in bilateral ties, as Bush, seen as the most Taiwan-friendly Republican president in decades, vowed to take a tough stance with Beijing.

“That would follow a past pattern. But I have not heard that anything like that has been planned yet,” Yates said.

Economy said Beijing should refrain from making any “vociferous response” to Trump’s controversial Twitter attacks on China and establish contact with administration members soon, in a bid to find areas of common interest.

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“The most important thing that China can do is … begin to reach out to these people as I’m sure that ambassador [to the US] Cui Tiankai is already doing. It’s much better to remain calm and then send foreign minister to meet with US secretary of state to begin normalisation of relations,” she said.

She suggested Beijing should consider taking steps to diffuse potential flashpoints in ties and demonstrate respect for Trump’s “America-first” priorities.

China could open up sectors of the economy, including financial services and energy, a move that would likely be well received by the new administration.

North Korea is another area where China and the US could work to build trust. Beijing could hold talks with top Trump cabinet picks, such as Michael Flynn, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, on how to exert leadership on managing the North Korea issue.

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“This is one of the areas that will be most important for China to reach out to the new members of the cabinet. I don’t think this is an issue that President Trump has had a lot of background on and so the kind of advice that he gets will be critical,” Economy said.

Trump, who has been critical of Obama’s policy of engaging with China, has thrown the existing mechanisms for communication and consultation, including the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, into uncertainty.

Many in Washington were sceptical over the usefulness of the SED, Economy said, but added that within the broader community of Asia experts, there was very little disagreement that the two nations needed some formal platform for leaders and experts to work out issues.

“I think that unless there is some massive break in the relationship, there will be some institutionalised process for the two sides to work together,” she said.

But Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States in Washington, warned that dialogue hinged on Trump’s recognition of the one-China policy, which Beijing views as the basis of ties.

“We can be sure that China would respond in some way by downgrading the relationship if we do not reaffirm the three communiqués [which spelled out the one-China policy] in some form. Without that basis for the relationship, there’s a chance that China will not accept new American ambassador. This is a problem of Trump’s creation,” he said.

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Such a scenario could become a nightmare for Washington if it needs Beijing’s cooperation in the event of escalated tensions with North Korea, he added.

Robert Sutter, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, said that if Trump continued to question the one-China policy, Beijing might refuse to discuss other issues and end bilateral dialogue.

“The premise of the dialogue is the relationship needs to be nurtured and sustained and Trump does not act like that,” he said. “That’s what makes him a problem for China.

Additional reporting by Wendy Wu and Liu Zhen