Donald Trump

What to expect from Xi-Trump summit

Geopolitical differences will be tough to overcome, but some progress possible on trade

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 March, 2017, 5:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 March, 2017, 5:57pm

President Xi Jinping and US counterpart Donald Trump are expected to take the first steps in building a personal relationship at their upcoming summit meeting, but observers have cautioned that distrust over key geopolitical issues will be tough to overcome.

The two countries’ interests diverged sharply in key areas, they said, with Trump’s unpredictability likely to add to uncertainties, but they do hold out some hope for progress on trade and economic issues.

The summit is set to be held at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, next month according to US media reports, with some suggesting a time frame of April 6 and 7.

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It will be reminiscent of the Sunnylands summit between Xi and Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama in 2013, when the two leaders were seen walking side by side under the California sun. That summit allowed Xi and Obama to talk in an informal, relaxed manner that enabled frank discussion.

“Meeting in Sunnylands or Mar-a-Lago would be symbolically important because it shows the two leaders are at least willing to talk to each other and begin to develop a personal relationship,” former US State Department Asia-Pacific specialist Robert Wang said, stressing he was expressing his personal view.

If a major crisis occurred in the future, the meeting might make the two leaders “a bit more restrained in their reactions and more willing to manage the crisis”, Wang said, while adding that any such impact would be “marginal”.

Both countries have extended olive branches in the run-up to the summit. In his recent trip to Beijing, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for the US-China relationship to be built on “non-confrontation, no-conflict, mutual respect and always searching for win-win solutions” – echoing the themes Beijing has used to describe ties with Washington as a “new type of major-country relationship”.

The Trump administration has not branded China a currency manipulator or imposed a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese imports, both of which Trump vowed to do during his campaign. Official rhetoric from the two sides has become more restrained in recent weeks, raising the prospect that the Mar-a-Lago summit might offer a chance to ease bilateral tensions.

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“The news about the summit sends out a big positive signal,” said Diao Daming, a researcher at the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“An early meeting between the two leaders would push Sino-US relations to complete the debugging and test-running period as soon as possible before entering the track of healthy and positive development.”

He said that while Trump had flashed radical and extreme character traits on the campaign trail, he had also exhibited a certain degree of pragmatism and prudence since taking office.

But observers cautioned against being too optimistic about summit outcomes, especially given the wide divide between the two countries on security issues.

Even though Obama described the Sunnylands summit as “terrific”, China and the United States went on to find themselves embroiled in bitter exchanges over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, cybersecurity and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

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The US has called on China to take tougher action against Pyongyang to force the North Korean regime to abandon its nuclear weapons programme and has begun deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system 200km south of Seoul to guard against North Korean missiles. Speaking in Seoul on the eve of his visit to Beijing, Tillerson even raised the prospect of a pre-emptive military strike against Pyongyang.

However, Beijing has said the deployment of the THAAD system, which includes powerful radar capabilities, poses a threat to China’s security, and has demanded that Washington and Seoul stop threatening North Korea militarily.

“Unless Xi can guarantee to the US that North Korea would freeze its nuclear development, I don’t see how the US could agree to not install THAAD,” Wang said.

Scott Kennedy, deputy director of the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in a commentary that the Xi-Trump summit would provide the two leaders with “an opportunity to quiet the doubts and articulate a clear vision”.

But he also warned that the “volatile winds of competing nationalism” might make US-China relations bounce around “like a kite”.

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A number of senior Trump administration officials have records of talking tough on China. Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon has predicted a war between the two nations in the South China Sea and Peter Navarro, the director of his National Trade Council, has described the Sino-US relationship as a “zero-sum game”.

Trump has also proposed a US$54 billion increase in America’s defence budget and his administration is reportedly putting together a new package of arms to sell to Taiwan, triggering further unease in Beijing.

Dennis Wilder, a former director for East Asian affairs at America’s National Security Council, said addressing the threat posed by North Korea would “top the list” at the summit.

But he said the meeting would also be important because “President Trump has a starkly different set of domestic priorities (particularly on economic and trade issues) than the last US president, which have large implications for Sino-US relations going forward”.

Wang said the most likely positive outcome of the summit was on the trade front, where the two leaders might be more willing to make compromises.

“For example, Trump may agree not to designate China a currency manipulator,” he said. “China might look at the possibility of investing in US infrastructure as Trump pledges to bring manufacturing jobs back to America.”

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Creating more jobs at home was Trump’s policy priority, while Xi would be keen to avoid harsh tariffs, which HSBC chief economist Qu Hongbin has warned could halve Chinese exports to the US.