Will Trump echo Xi’s words in leaders’ first meeting?

Approval by US president of Chinese president’s much-used catchphrase would be depicted as diplomatic breakthrough for Beijing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 April, 2017, 6:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 April, 2017, 11:38pm

US President Donald Trump could echo one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s favourite catchphrases during their first meeting on Thursday in Florida, in exchange for concessions from Beijing over North Korea and Trump’s other priorities such as the trade imbalance between the countries, diplomatic experts say.

Such an unprecedented trade-off between the leaders of the world’s two biggest economies on the “new type of great power relations” is expected to appear in a joint statement at the end of the summit, if one is issued.

According to Chinese diplomatic sources, Xi’s formula for China-US relations based on “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”, key components of the catchphrase, was included in a draft statement Beijing presented to Trump’s White House.

If Trump approves the phraseology, it will no doubt be music to the ears of Xi, who coined the phrase during his trip to Washington in February 2012 as China’s heir apparent and vice-president, and is expected to be depicted as a major diplomatic breakthrough for Beijing.

It also looks set to draw criticism across the board in the United States, especially if Trump fails to secure substantial concessions from his Chinese counterpart.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been under fierce attack for echoing those components at least three times during his first trip to Beijing last month, with critics decrying the statements as kowtowing to Beijing and a handy proof of the former oil company executive’s incompetence.

Andrew Nathan, a veteran China expert at Columbia University in New York, said it was a major mistake for Tillerson to “nearly endorse the new type of great power relations” between Beijing and Washington.

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He said it reflected the US top diplomat’s “insufficient briefing and insufficient preparation and a lack of sophistication about the technicalities of US-China relations”.

“I think it’s entirely possible for Trump to repeat that mistake, although I hope he doesn’t,” Nathan said.

The Obama administration refused to accept the terminology amid concerns that it was tantamount to granting Beijing “equal power status” and Washington would then have to stay away from whatever sensitive issues Beijing deemed its core national interests, such as the long-standing East and South China seas disputes, Tibet and Taiwan.

Although Trump upped the ante on the eve of the summit by threatening to take unilateral action against North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship if China refuses to help rein in Pyongyang, observers generally believe Xi is unlikely to compromise much on Beijing’s communist ally.

Such a scenario would be a nightmare for the former real estate mogul who claims to know “the art of the deal”, in the wake of his embarrassing failure to pass his health care reform.

Ma Zhengang, a former Chinese ambassador to Britain and former president of the China Institute of International Studies, said Tillerson’s unprecedented overture had raised hopes that Trump would echo the catchphrase at the Mar-a-Lago summit.

“Trump is unlikely to use the same set of terminology as during the Obama era and China’s version should be acceptable to the Trump administration,” he said.

Zhiqun Zhu, director of the China Institute at Bucknell University, Pennsylvania, said Xi would score a key victory ahead of the leadership shake-up later this year if he managed to get Trump to agree that both nations must cooperate even on divisive issues despite their divergent and rival interests.

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“Trump does not have to say ‘new type of great power relations’, but if he says things like ‘one-China’, ‘cooperation’, ‘mutual respect’, etc, that should be sufficient and the meeting will be viewed as a success in China,” Ma said.

Other analysts said Trump would insist on reciprocity, which means Xi would have to make counter-offers on issues that topped Trump’s agenda to make any deal happen, such as on North Korea or trade.

“Americans know too well about Chinese leaders’ obsession with this sort of symbolic rhetorical agreement. It’s quite possible they’ll think it’s worth giving face to Beijing in public to trade something more substantive on specific issues as part of a grand bargain with China,” said Pang Zhongying, of Beijing’s Renmin University.

For Trump, vaguely defined words such as “mutual respect” could be subjected to different interpretations and might not be viewed as giving China major leverage in the first place, Pang added.

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Pundits believe that in exchange for Trump’s endorsement of his phraseology, Xi could agree in general terms to cooperate with Trump to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula and to cut China’s trade surplus of more than US$300 billion with the United States.

Gal Luft, co-director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, said North Korea’s latest medium-range ballistic missile test on the eve of the summit underlined the urgency for both leaders to narrow their differences on Pyongyang.

While Trump needed to understand the limitations of China’s influence on North Korea, Xi also needed to understand the pressure Trump was under and that he was bruised by his defeat over health care reform, he said.

“Trump does not want to be the president under whom North Korea accomplishes intercontinental missile capabilities. He does not want to be the president under whose watch America becomes a target for North Korea’s missiles.

“So both have to be very frank with each other, put things on the table and get to understand each other and see where the other guy is coming from.” Luft said.