Avoid beer and skip the handshake: how Xi should handle first Trump meeting

Experts warn that social contact at summits with people outside your own culture can be a diplomatic minefield for nations’ leaders

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 March, 2017, 10:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 March, 2017, 11:27pm

When President Xi Jinping meets his US counterpart Donald Trump next week, tea rather than beer might be the best way to oil the wheels of the diplomatic relationship.

Xi was quick to cross the cultural divide and share an ale with former British prime minister David Cameron in 2015 but that tactic will not work for Trump, a teetotaller since the death of his brother from an alcohol-related illness in 1981 at the age of 43.

Leow Chee Seng, a professor of non-verbal communication and behaviour at the Human Behaviour Academy in Malaysia, said social contact with people outside your own culture can be something of a diplomatic minefield for leaders.

Leow said Xi should offer tea as a gift and the two leaders should minimise the risk of social gaffes by limiting their social activity.

That’s because observers will be closely watching how the two “tough” leaders interact.

“It’ll be very interesting to see the chemistry between Xi and Trump in their meetings rather than any political agreements made,” said Qiao Mu, an associate professor of media studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

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Xi’s reputation at home is as a strong leader, pushing through his sweeping anti-corruption campaign, a massive overhaul of the armed forces and amassing the political power to make himself the Communist Party’s “core leader”.

Trump also has a tough image and in his limited dealings with world leaders has shown himself willing to take a fairly relaxed view of the some of the diplomatic niceties to show who’s boss.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was given a hugely extended and firm handshake by Trump during their meeting, while the German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared nonplussed when the US president seemed to ignore her offer to shake hands.

Leow said Xi would have to be “very observant” of Trump to avoid awkward moments where he might lose face by the US president not proffering a proper handshake.

A bow of greeting might be the best way to avoid the problem, he said.

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To project authority, Xi should smile to the audience, but not to Trump after the talks, said Leow.

Xi should also keep a small distance from Trump to show his independence, he said.

“When the meeting is finished, don’t let Trump move first because the person who moves towards the other shows indirectly that he’s the one in control,” he added.

Chinese leaders usually cultivate a serious image while in China, but have sometimes allowed themselves to let their hair down while on diplomatic trips overseas.

Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping famously tried on a white cowboy hat presented to him at a rodeo in Texas during his first visit to the US in 1979.

Qiao said Jiang Zemin was the most flamboyant Chinese leader while travelling overseas.

Jiang loved to display his knowledge of American politics and culture during his visit to the US, reciting part of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for then president Bill Clinton.

He also quoted from the poet Longfellow and Chinese literary masters after his arrival at the White House.

During Jiang’s trip to Hawaii in 1997, he even held Hawaiian guitar, with a flower garland around his neck and watched local children do a traditional dance.

Politics aside, Trump and Xi could bond as ‘strong men’

Sometimes, however, even the best laid diplomatic plans and charm offensives to woo the public, dignitaries and leaders overseas can backfire.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth was filmed without her knowledge telling a policeman that Chinese officials were “very rude” after Xi’s trip to Britain two years ago.

“How much personal gestures [of leaders] can improve a nation’s image is hard to tell,” Qiao admitted.