Sino-US relations

The making of the Xi-Trump summit, the most-anticipated world leader’s meeting of 2017

All eyes on when the state leaders will meet and if it will be a formal White House event or a party by the beach in Florida

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 March, 2017, 4:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 March, 2017, 6:00pm

When will US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet?

If there’s any meeting between world leaders that’ll be among the most anticipated in 2017, it’s the inevitable meeting between Trump and Xi. Trump, as he seemingly stewards the United States’ decline, has long-emphasised his interest in rethinking the US relationship with China.

After Trump’s inauguration, Sino-US ties were at first slow-moving. Even as Trump racked up headlines over phone calls with numerous foreign leaders – friendly and adversarial alike – and hosted close US allies in Washington, there was little on the US-China front.

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This wasn’t entirely surprising. Trump’s unprecedented decision in early December 2016, during the US presidential transition, to accept a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s Beijing-sceptic President Tsai Ing-wen cast a pall over Chinese expectations for the bilateral relationship once Trump took office. China considers Taiwan a part of its sovereign territory and relations between Beijing and Taipei declined sharply after Tsai’s May 2016 inauguration.

After multiple weeks of uncertainty and near-silence on the bilateral relationship at the highest levels of government on both sides, Trump and Xi broke the ice formally with their first presidential phone call on February 10. The two leaders had spoken days after Trump’s election win in November, before Trump’s call with Tsai as well.

Crucially, Trump’s affirmation of Washington’s decades-old One China policy in the call with Xi appeared to restore a modicum of normalcy to relations. In the final week of February, Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi became the highest-ranking Chinese government official to visit Washington since Trump’s inauguration.

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Yang’s time in the US capital was productive, featuring meetings with several members of Trump’s cabinet and inner circle. Yang, during his two days, met Vice-President Mike Pence, Trump’s Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. He also met US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

While no public announcements were unveiled during his visit regarding a Trump-Xi meeting, multiple sources in Washington speculated that a formal meeting between the two leaders could occur in late April or early May. Notably, China has shown a degree of openness to hearing out Trump’s concerns on Chinese trade practices, making it more likely that the US side will be interested in accelerating a Trump-Xi meeting.

The first signs that Beijing was ready to discuss trade with the Trump administration came in early February, in the first Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference after the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday. Lu Kang, a foreign ministry spokesperson, said the US and China would be able to work through any trade “differences … through friendly consultations”.

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That thread held through Yang’s visit. The US State Department readout of Tillerson’s meeting with Yang underlined “the need to create a level playing field for trade and investment.” Tillerson this week will make his first to Asia, starting in Tokyo on March 15, Seoul on March 17 then Beijing on March 18-19. The Beijing leg of this visit will be worth scrutinising closely for signs that a Trump-Xi meeting is imminent.

Even if a meeting is delayed – either due to difficulties in pinning down a mutually amenable bilateral agenda or by developments related to North Korea – Xi is likely to travel to the US in September for the United Nations General Assembly. A state visit could be arranged simultaneously.

One interesting model for the two leaders to consider will be the informal format that familiarised Xi to Obama after the former’s formal ascension as China’s president in 2013. The two leaders met for a relaxed “short-sleeves” summit at Rancho Mirage’s Sunnylands resort in California.

The administration could similarly proffer an informal meeting to China, even at Trump’s estate at Mar-a-Lago in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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The Sunnylands model allowed Obama and Xi to frankly exchange high-level views about how the world’s hegemon and foremost rising power should manage their bilateral relationship in a period of global change. Trump’s radical departure from decades of how US presidents have imagined their country’s role in the world and Xi’s seemingly growing aspirations for a broader share of global leadership would make this sort summit particularly opportune.