Why protocol still matters at Xi-Trump summit

Florida visit gives Xi another opportunity to promote ‘new type of great power relations’

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 April, 2017, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 April, 2017, 10:12pm

US presidents have long hosted their chief allies and rivals at relatively informal, getting to know you sessions stripped of the pomp and circumstance of a state visit.

Dwight Eisenhower invited the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev to his Pennsylvania farm in 1959 and Richard Nixon hosted Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev, at his home in California in 1973.

Nowadays another communist power, China, aspires to take the Soviet Union’s place, with Chinese President Xi Jinping preparing for his second such meeting with a US president next week.

“China wants to remind the world of the cold war era, when the world was dominated by two superpowers,” said Professor Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

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Xi’s April 6-7 visit to US President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, will give him another opportunity to promote a “new type of great power relations”.

In 2013, his first year as China’s head of state, Xi tried his luck with then US president Barack Obama at the Sunnylands Retreat in Palm Springs, California, known as the “Camp David of the West”.

Zhang said that as much as Xi wanted to stabilise Sino-US ties before the Trump administration’s China policies took shape, what he wanted most was to demonstrate to the world that the United States, the world’s sole superpower, recognised China’s rise as a “great power”.

The visit would also present Xi as the peer of the US president on both the political and personal levels, said Yun Sun, a senior associate with the East Asia programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington.

“Domestically, it should work in China because China will portray the summit as Xi’s personal success to charm Trump and rein in the dangerous trends in US-China relations,” Sun said.

How the meeting is presented to the watching world matters a great deal, and that makes protocol important. In diplomacy, how many guns salute or how long a handshake lasts can matter enormously.

That’s especially the case in China, where a Confucian tradition linking ritual and ceremony to virtue has resulted in an obsession with etiquette in Chinese culture.

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“Some Chinese people tend to over-interpret or exaggerate details in people’s contacts,” said Professor Li Jiashan, from Beijing International Studies University.

Zhang Yuquan, an American studies expert at Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-Sen University, said the US side would take good care of the protocol to make Xi feel comfortable, although it would still be tough in negotiations.

“The career diplomats know how the Chinese care about face, and they would do as much as they can in terms of protocol,” he said.

The international media made a fuss in September when Obama, arriving for the G20 summit in Hangzhou, left Air Force One via a bare metal ramp instead of the full-sized, red-carpeted staircase usually used by state leaders. Some reports speculated about whether his Chinese hosts were intentionally humiliating him, but it later turned out to be a misunderstanding due to language differences and had no lasting impact.

“In the modern international relationship, a minor incident could impact hugely, while a seemingly big fuss could also end up as nothing,” Li said.

In February, after a more formal meeting at the White House in Washington, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe travelled to Florida on Air Force One with the new US president, becoming the first foreign leader hosted by Trump at Mar-a-Lago, his “Winter White House”. The two men bonded over a round of golf and Sun said China, Japan’s historical rival, “certainly doesn’t want to be left behind”.

The duration of the two presidents’ interactions would be an essential indicator of the meeting’s success, Zhang Yuquan said.

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“If the two presidents could talk for a long time, it means they get along,” he said.

Xi and Obama spent as many as eight hours together over two days in 2013, which was hailed by Chinese officials as an “unprecedented” breakthrough.

They had a meeting on the first afternoon, followed by a joint news conference and a dinner. They took a walk together the next morning, then held a second meeting and attended a tea party before Xi’s departure.

The Chinese side believed the meeting had put Sino-US ties on a strong path, and Xi went on the have further, lengthy, one-on-one chats with Obama in Beijing in 2014 and Hangzhou last year. But long meetings do not guarantee a positive outcome. At the end of the day, Obama just never accepted Xi’s “new type of relationship”, Zhang Baohui said, and sought instead to contain China through his pivot to Asia strategy.

Xi was accompanied at Sunnylands by top policy adviser Wang Huning, chief of staff Li Zhanshu, top diplomat Yang Jiechi, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Assistant Foreign Minister and translator Zheng Zeguang, and China’s ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai. The delegation he leads to Florida is expected to be much the same.

Team Obama included secretary of state John Kerry, outgoing national security adviser Tom Donilon, assistant chief of staff Rob Nabors, incoming US trade representative Mike Froman, incoming assistant secretary of State Daniel Russel and the head of East Asia affairs at the National Security Council, Evan Medeiros.

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The Trump administration, however, has yet to appoint an “Asia team” at the State Department, and Trump have proved to be an unconventional leader in some early diplomatic encounters. He hung up on Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and did not shake hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in front of the cameras.

Zhang Yuquan said that was not because Trump did not know or care about diplomatic protocol, but because he used such psychological tricks on purpose.

“He wants to pressure and irritate his opponents first, so as to take advantage in the following negotiations,” he said, adding that Xi would be paying more attention to the substance of their meetings than the protocol.

In any case, spending time together in a casual atmosphere is the main point of such meetings.

Abe was photographed high-fiving Trump during a round of golf at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, 29km from Mar-a-Lago, in February, during which they were accompanied by a four time major champion, South Africa’s Ernie Els.

Xi did not play a round with golf enthusiast Obama at Sunnylands, which has its own golf course, and is not known to be a fan of the sport. His anti-corruption campaign even banned Communist Party cadres from playing the “millionaires’ game” until last year. At Mar-a-Lago, he will be dealing with a billionaire who owns golf clubs.

If the conversation turns to football, Xi and Trump will definitely need a translator. The Chinese president is a soccer fan who supports English side Manchester United, while Trump used to own a gridiron team, the New Jersey Generals, in the short-lived US Football League in the 1980s.

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At Sunnylands, Xi and Obama discussed sports during a 50-minute stroll together, but only Xi’s daily swims and Obama’s interest in basketball. They also talked about their youth. Xi was exiled to the countryside as a teenager, while Obama was brought up in Hawaii.

Celebrity chef Bobby Flay cooked the dinner at Sunnylands in 2013, with the two presidents and their teams sitting on opposite sides of a long table, as they had done at that afternoon’s meeting.

The menu included American porterhouse steak, New Mexican lobster tamales and Californian cherry pies, served with US$98 Iron Horse 2004 Chinese Cuvée bubbly and US$40 Ridge Geyserville red wine, both made in California.

Xi took along a bottle of China’s strong “national liquor”, mao-tai, and made a toast to Obama.

Trump and Abe had two dinners at Mar-a-Lago that were much more public affairs, in an outdoor setting with many club guests dining nearby.

The first “family dinner”, on February 10 was a low-key affair, with Trump and Abe sitting shoulder to shoulder at a small round table, their wives by their side. The invited company was Robert Kraft, owner of the NFL champion New England Patriots.

The second night’s dinner was more dramatic. With the two delegations sitting at a long table and music playing in the background as the waiters brought in the main course, Trump, Abe and their advisers discussed how to respond to North Korea’s launching of an intermediate-range ballistic missile into the sea west of Japan a few hours earlier.

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The scramble at the dinner table, followed later that night by a joint press conference, was captured by the cameras of other diners, prompting security concerns.

“Even as a flurry of advisers and translators descended upon the table carrying papers and phones for their bosses to consult, dinner itself proceeded apace,” CNN reported.

The exchange of gifts is important in Chinese culture and is also a time-honoured diplomatic gesture of friendship.

Four years ago, Xi gave Obama an autographed red, white and blue basketball. In return, Xi was presented with the redwood bench the two leaders had sat on during their morning walk. It bore an inscription reading “Presented to His Excellency Xi Jinping President of the People’s Republic of China by Barack Obama President of the United States, Sunnylands Annenberg Estate, June 7-8, 2013.”

Redwood already had a special place in Sino-US relations, with then US president Richard Nixon giving several trees to his Chinese hosts during his ice-breaking trip in 1972. Chinese diplomat Chen Mingming interpreted the bench as saying “we can sit down and work together”.

Zhang Baohui said gifts might work even better with Trump.

“If Xi brings the right gift that Trump genuinely likes, it might be greatly beneficial to the Sino-US relationship because Trump is such an intuitional personality,” he said.

That also meant something personal might work best of all.

When they met at the White House in February, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau presented Trump with a silver-framed black-and-white photograph of Trump, then a young real estate developer, giving a speech in honour of Trudeau’s father, Pierre, at an awards ceremony for the then Canadian prime minister at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York in 1981.

The picture was well received. “What a great picture,” Trump said. “I will keep that in a very special place.”

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Abe, meanwhile, saw a golden opportunity to make the most of Trump’s favourite colour. He gave the then president-elect a US$3,755 gold-coloured golf driver at a meeting in New York in November and followed that up with a gilt ballpoint pen in February.

First ladies can also play a role in such visits, with Trump’s wife Melania and Abe’s wife Akie present at Mar-a-Lago.

However, Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan did not have the company of Obama’s wife Michelle at Sunnylands, with Michelle opting to stay in Washington with their two daughters.

Peng was accompanied by the wife of California’s governor most of the time at Sunnylands and paid a visit to a museum in Palm Springs.

To make up for his wife’s absence, Obama chatted with Peng for 30 minutes about her successful singing career and charitable work, and handed her a greeting letter from Michelle.

It is not known whether Peng will travel to Mar-A-Lago with her husband.