When Xi meets Trump, could the personal touch avert a China-US break-up?

  • Drew Thompson says the Chinese president should direct his party to address the issues of fairness and reciprocity that America has raised. The US is determined to compete, but Beijing can still find areas of compromise
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2018, 2:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2018, 4:23am

The meeting between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 on December 1 will undoubtedly be the climax of a year of tense bilateral relations.

Hot on the heels of contentious Asean and East Asia summits in Singapore, a fraught Apec meeting in Papua New Guinea that failed to produce a joint statement for the first time, and unsuccessful attempts to engage on trade at working levels, the meeting between Trump and Xi in Buenos Aires is a made-for-TV showdown between the heads of two major powers, but it is still far from clear what direction the relationship will take after the summit.

The bilateral relationship between the US and China is now in uncharted territory with open animosity defining it.

China’s rise has taken an ominous turn in the new era of Xi Jinping, contributing to the sense of alienation felt by the US and other democracies. The Communist Party’s reach into all aspects of society and the economy has extinguished any hope of liberalisation or openness, along with civil society, private enterprise, independent media and free speech.

In the region, China’s rapidly expanding military, unapologetic territorial expansion in the South China Sea and growing political and military pressure on Taiwan raise serious concerns about how China might use military might to pursue political objectives.

Trade with China has historically counteracted concerns about the nation’s rise and empowered advocates for a friendly relationship despite political differences, but Beijing’s increasing willingness to use trade to coerce partners when security or political tensions arise furthers the perception that China is not just a business competitor but also a geo-strategic adversary.

China’s decision to briefly embargo rare-earths exports to Japan after the arrest of a Chinese fisherman in disputed waters in 2010 was a wake-up call for hi-tech manufacturers dependent on China as the world’s largest supplier of the critical material.

Smaller countries have also felt China’s economic wrath following political differences. China’s boycott of Norwegian salmon, after the 2010 award of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo, lasted for years until bilateral relations normalised.

Beijing’s decision to open an anti-dumping case against Australian barley imports two days after the US announced its intention to jointly develop a naval base in Papua New Guinea with Australia is the latest example of China using market access to punish trade partners for pursuing their security interests. China’s approach to economic coercion has created a trade trap that countries must increasingly hedge against.

How China’s blatant IP theft, long overlooked by US, sparked trade war

The Trump administration, from the start, has declared its intent to protect its interests and openly compete with China, while seeking to develop a constructive, results-oriented relationship based on fairness and reciprocity.

China is no longer a poor developing country seeking to rebuild itself after decades of Maoist class struggle and isolation, but a giant economy with a powerful, growing military demanding respect and accommodation on the world stage. Frustration in Washington with China’s uninhibited theft of intellectual property, industrial policy, high tariffs and non-tariff barriers and coercion is reflected in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo describing his diplomatic objective as trying to “convince China to behave like a normal nation on commerce”.

Washington has made good on its promise to compete. It has increased its foreign development assistance and revamped the bureaucracy that delivers it. It has stepped up law enforcement efforts targeting those seeking to steal intellectual property, launching a “China Initiative” that increases resources for criminal investigations and information sharing between prosecutors. It is deepening security partnerships and presence operations in the Western Pacific to reassure allies and ensure that international waters remains a public good for all to use.

China chafes at US efforts to protect its interests, while steadfastly denying that it shares any blame or responsibility for increased tensions or the security dilemma gripping the region, meeting US indignity over years of injustice and lack of reciprocity with its own outrage over a “century of humiliation”. The drama now plays out publicly in multilateral meetings that were formerly known for their boring, scripted platitudes calling for a better world.

To rise above trade war, China must let go of its ‘century of humiliation’

Tough rhetoric by both sides at multilateral meetings, reports of on-again, off-again meetings between trade negotiators, mysterious letters from China offering concessions that Trump has coyly described as “not acceptable” and an increasingly overt competition for global influence has raised the stakes for what in past years would have been a routine meeting on the margins of a gathering of world leaders.

There is no chance that a trade deal can be reached in only a few days when there have been no substantive discussions at the working level. The divide is too deep, the positions are too entrenched and the issue is too complex for a fast and simple solution. Besides, at this point, resolving trade differences alone would not create strategic trust or a stable bilateral relationship.

Trump and Xi have remained aloof from the worst of the rhetoric

There are, however, glimmers of hope that the meeting of the heads of state of the two largest economies could turn the tide on a turbulent relationship and start a slow path to a modus vivendi, where the two countries can find a way to peacefully coexist.

The Trump-Xi meeting at the G20 will reportedly feature a dinner hosted by Trump – a signature engagement tactic the president uses to take his counterpart’s measure, deepen his understanding of his guest’s perspectives, convey his thoughts and use his charm in an informal setting where he is comfortable and the contours of a future relationship can be mapped.

Trump and Xi have remained aloof from the worst of the rhetoric, choosing instead to let other officials posture and make speeches about the failures of the other, preserving space for the two leaders to rekindle their relationship first forged at Mar-a-Lago.

Is America out to undermine China’s Communist Party?

No one doubts Xi’s power at home or his control and influence over the government. If he comes away satisfied with his engagement with Trump and orders the Communist Party to find areas of compromise and work with US counterparts to stabilise the relationship, China’s bureaucracy would undoubtedly mobilise to the task, and the opportunity to deepen meaningful dialogue on strategic and economic issues could be realised.

While the bilateral relationship is bleak on many levels, the potential of reaching a modus vivendi still exists and is not impossible.

Drew Thompson was the director for China at the US Department of Defence. He is currently a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He can be followed on Twitter: @TangAnZhu