Why the Xi-Trump summit is a high-stakes gamble
The Chinese and Americans have different views of diplomacy and both sides have a lot to lose with a negative outcome from the meeting
This week’s summit between President Xi Jinping and US counterpart Donald Trump has rekindled an old debate about the meaning of diplomacy.
Summit diplomacy is perceived differently in Beijing and Washington, with Chinese diplomats appearing to attach more importance to protocol and American ones preferring to focus on substance over form, and that raises the stakes enormously.
Gu Su, an expert on mainland politics from Nanjing University, said the debate might boil down to differences in political system and ideology.
“It’s been a tradition in China to value these kinds of in-person meetings between important leaders,” he said. “Small symbols such as their handshakes are all part of our face diplomacy and often cited as diplomatic accomplishments.”
But in the West, where political systems were more open and transparent, people would want to know “where’s the beef?”, Gu added.
The different understandings of diplomacy have prompted some observers to express concerns about negative outcomes from the summit, citing the massive risks and challenges both leaders face – at home and abroad.
Many have expressed doubts about whether it was the right time for Xi to reach out to Trump and meet him at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. The summit, starting on Thursday, was only confirmed a week beforehand.
Trump’s unpredictability and inconsistency on major policy issues is one concern, as are conflicting views towards China among his advisers.
Intense media coverage of a power struggle within Trump’s inner circle seems to have added to uncertainties in an already complicated US-China relationship, and the fact that Trump, more than two months into his presidency, has yet to come up with a China policy or fill many important foreign policy positions in his administration has lent more weight to views that the US-China summit is premature.
Summit meetings were normally heavily scripted in advance, and that usually took a long time to arrange, said Andrew Nathan, a political scientist at Columbia University in New York.
“Since there was not much time available for the pre-negotiations – and not much staff available on the US side to handle these pre-negotiations – it makes sense that the details could not be announced much in advance of the meeting,” he said. “But this begs the question of why the meeting is being held so soon in the first place.”
Zhiqun Zhu, director of the China Institute at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, said both sides would have had a hard time agreeing on full protocol and agenda details for the hastily arranged summit.
“For example, if they wish to issue a joint statement at the end of the meeting, what should be included in the statement?” he asked.
Even advocates of an early meeting between Xi and Trump caution that both sides need to manage their expectations, with little prospect for any substantive outcome.
Analysts said that while it was a good opportunity for the leaders to get to know each other and exchange views on a range of critical issues, there were also significant risks behind the summit.
The stakes would be much higher for Xi ahead of a major leadership reshuffle at the five-yearly Communist Party congress later this year, according to several observers.
Despite their differences on the timing of the summit and what it could achieve, pundits agree it will have some impact on the conclave of party elites, which is Beijing’s top priority this year.
While the delayed confirmation of the US visit was embarrassing for Xi, it would not be as embarrassing as a failed summit, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.
“Xi’s basic concern would be a successful summit,” he said. “Policy differences [between the leaders] can be fudged, but having a failed summit would not be acceptable to Xi.”
If Xi was given the cold shoulder like German Chancellor Angela Merkel at her recent meeting with Trump, it would be seen as a huge failure for Xi domestically and a blow to his ambitions globally.
Huang Jing, at National University of Singapore, also said Xi could not afford to “look bad” at the meeting with Trump.
“I think the summit is quite risky especially when Beijing appears to have shown overt enthusiasm about an early meeting with Trump and pushed hard for it,” he said. “It seems Trump himself is not as keen as leaders in Beijing for the summit.
“There will be negative impact if it fails or does not go as well as expected.”
Huang and other analysts also warned it would be even more embarrassing for Xi if whatever he managed to agree with Trump was not well-received among the embattled US leader’s domestic critics or if bilateral relations turned sour in the coming months.
But US experts said such concerns should not be exaggerated because while Xi was running a risk by having a summit meeting relatively early, Trump was taking big risks too.
Gal Luft, co-director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, noted that Trump needed to rebuild his reputation as a good negotiator after his major defeat on heath care reform.
“He would not want to put too much stake in foreign affairs because it is not what his supporters care about,” he said.
Richard Bush, of the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said the Trump administration had been one problem or disaster after another. “Trump can’t afford too many more,” he said.
For Washington, another risk was how the United States’ allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region assess the summit’s results.
“They will be concerned that Trump doesn’t understand the issues very well, or that he misunderstands them, and so may make mistakes that affect their interests,” Bush said.
He said that for Xi and China there were also risks attached to not holding an early meeting with Trump in order to contain simmering tensions and exchange views on urgent matters, such as North Korea’s accelerated nuclear and missile programmes.
Despite Trump’s antagonistic campaign rhetoric about bilateral economic ties and all the uncertainty surrounding the US leader and his policies, “perhaps China would benefit from Xi’s meeting Trump early on, expressing his goodwill and his own desire for a ‘constructive, results-oriented relationship’,” Bush said.
“If the summit goes ‘well enough’ for each government to portray it as a success – and each side has an interest in creating such an impression – then Xi’s position will be stronger in the months before the 19th party congress.”
Nathan said he also believed the timing of the meeting was advantageous to Xi because he could take advantage of Trump’s predicaments at home, especially his incomplete policy team.
“With the thinness of senior Asia-specialised staff around Trump – basically it’s senior Asia director Matthew Pottinger in the National Security Council and other than that, the government’s permanent bureaucracy with no senior appointments below the cabinet level – Trump has not had time to understand the complex regional picture or form a policy,” Nathan said. “Assuming he even wishes to acquire, or is capable of acquiring, such an understanding.
“Xi has the opportunity almost to be the person who briefs Trump on Asia – to form Trump’s view of Asia.
“The Chinese, of course, have a persuasive story to tell about their ‘core interests’ and the desirability of win-win cooperation. Xi can tell this story to Trump and has a good chance of strongly shaping Trump’s views.”
Pundits said any substantive outcome from the meeting was unlikely.
“For me, as an American, the summit would be a success if Trump avoids making any mistakes,” Nathan said. “I don’t think any of the big issues in the relationship are ripe for progress.”
From Beijing’s perspective, Zhu said, “the most important thing is Xi’s image at home as a major world leader”.
Analysts agreed that Beijing had more resources at its disposal to create a positive impression of the summit and present Xi in the best possible light.
“Both sides will manage expectations carefully, though the Chinese side seems more adept at this than the Trump team,” Tsang said.
Gu said Trump had toned down his China-bashing rhetoric since taking office in January, while Beijing had made “elaborate preparations” for the summit in recent months.
“Obviously Chinese diplomats and state-controlled media have refrained from often strident criticism of the US to avoid creating any impression that Beijing seeks to confront Washington,” he said.
For many mainland experts, the ongoing controversy over the American anti-missile system being deployed in South Korea in the face of Pyongyang’s accelerated nuclear armaments programme is a case in point.
China had vented its rage at South Korea, axing cultural and tourism exchanges and boycotting Korean companies and products, Gu said, but it had been very careful in preventing rising nationalist sentiment from spilling over and affecting the US.
Pundits said whether Xi and Trump could get along might be the most important criteria for determining the success or otherwise of the summit.
“It’ll have a lot to do with personal chemistry,” Luft said. “The future of the world rests on their relationship. The first few minutes will be crucial to decide if they like each other and if they can get along.”
Given that Trump was embattled and fighting against elements of his own party, Luft said he was likely to be “a gracious host because he will be keen to get along [with Xi]”.
Tsang said how well the two would get along remained to be seen despite the high stakes involved.
“Trump may like strongmen but he also has strong and not always up-to-date views about China,” he said. “Xi is unlikely to be warm to Trump if Trump should come across as overbearing to him because Xi does not like playing second fiddle to anyone.”
Nathan said it was “hard to imagine that two such different men will be able to sincerely like one another not only in the first five minutes but at any time”.
“However, I would expect Xi – not Trump – to behave with restraint and propriety on the surface,” he added.