Important for Trump to stay on message
The US president can be unpredictable yet on this trip, particularly the time he spends in China, it is important that he sets the tone for a fruitful and cooperative relationship with a region that has been destabilised by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions
China’s envoy to Washington says Donald Trump’s visit to Beijing this week “might be the most important part” of the US president’s trip through Asia, and “hopefully the most productive and constructive”. The first part is an understatement. The second depends on how well officials on both sides have managed expectations of a visit which, after all, allows less than three days for discussion of the world’s most important bilateral relationship.
They have spent much more time preparing the ground for President Xi Jinping’s talks with Trump than the latter will actually spend in Beijing. It helps if, as a result, both sides appear to start on the same page. So far, so good. The Americans are focused on efforts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and on rebalancing the bilateral economic relationship. Ambassador Cui Tiankai predicts China and the US will achieve “significant outcomes” on economic and trade issues and deepen cooperation on containing the North Korean threat. That complements the American agenda.
It remains to be seen whether the two sides are on the same page on Friday, or have managed expectations well enough to put a positive spin on outcomes. The latter is important to Asian countries concerned with American commitment to the region amid China’s peaceful rise. It will help set the tone for important regional economic and security forums to follow in Vietnam and the Philippines.
Trump’s Asia trip is longer than those made by his more recent predecessors, and he has added a day to his presence at the important East Asia summit. Yet what really sets it apart is that he comes as a president who campaigned on a mantra of “America first” and is identified with self-doubt in American global leadership, marked by withdrawal from multilateral deals on trade and climate change.
Thus, in Japan, Trump’s most important call after China, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to reinforce the US alliance, with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes and US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal topping the agenda.
There is usually an elephant or two in the room. One of course is Trump’s unpredictability, such as going off script on tangents, and being easily provoked. Another is concern among regional leaders that he will be distracted by the pressure of the probe into alleged Russian influence in his election, which has resulted in his former campaign manager being charged with money laundering, and that his volatile relationship with the media does not dog the visit. There is good reason to hope he stays on message in a trip that could set the tone for the rest of his administration. Ultimately, what is most important to China is to maintain constructive high-level exchanges.