Clarity needed on US relationship when Trump pays Xi visit
Trade and North Korea are sure to feature in upcoming talks, but there is still uncertainty as to the direction and shape of Washington’s foreign policy
The regularity of phone conversations between President Xi Jinping and Donald Trump raise hopes for a fruitful maiden visit to China by the leader of the United States in November. In the latest call on Monday, they spoke of their nations’ shared common interests and growing cooperation. Trade and North Korea are certain to feature in the upcoming talks, but there is still uncertainty as to the direction and shape of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. The continuing confused and conflicting messages from the US president and his top officials make planning for the discussions and predicting outcomes challenging.
The trip to China is part of Trump’s first visit to Asia, the other highlights being stops in Japan and South Korea. He has not yet committed to visiting Vietnam and the Philippines for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and Association of South East Asian Nations summits, as announced by Vice-President Mike Pence in April. But such unpreparedness is unlikely to mark his talks with Xi. While the specific agenda is not yet known, trade is already a hot issue; last month, the US leader fired the first shot in a potential trade war by ordering an investigation into accusations that Chinese companies are stealing intellectual property.
But such a dispute is not in the interests of either country, even though Trump has spoken often of the need for a “fairer deal”. It would hurt Chinese manufacturers as well as American suppliers and distributors. North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests will also feature, with Beijing being seen by Washington as able to rein in Pyongyang. Other fractious issues are Taiwan and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
There is reason for hope that these can be amicably dealt with. The most significant outcome of Xi and Trump’s first meeting, in Florida in April, was the friendly personal relationship that resulted. Trump has since spoken of his respect for Xi. The bond was evident in remarks after the latest phone conversation; Xi said he was happy to maintain regular communications on topics of mutual concern, while the US president said that it “was a long call, a very good call”.
Still, a divergence of views among Trump’s top officials and advisers and his own flip-flopping make for uncertainty. It is why Japan, for decades the closest ally of the US in Asia, is taking pre-emptive action by strengthening ties with India and the European Union through business and trade deals.
For China and the nations to be visited, Trump’s trip is therefore highly important; it has to provide clarity about what kind of relationship the US wants and how it is to be achieved.