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China-US relations

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping’s grand gestures can’t paper over diplomatic divide

Two leaders make little apparent headway on North Korea or trade despite record ‘gift pack’ of deals

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 10:19pm
UPDATED : Friday, 10 November, 2017, 10:50am

China and the United States announced a record-breaking “gift pack” of a quarter of a trillion US dollars worth of business deals as the presidents of the two nations wrapped up their talks on Thursday.

But the deals were not able to paper over their glaring differences on key issues, from access to China’s markets, and cybersecurity to North Korea and the South China Sea.

Despite the divisions, US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping appeared to join hands to put a positive spin on the US leader’s maiden, highly choreographed visit to Beijing.

After an elaborate official welcome broadcast live on state television for the first time in nearly four decades of Sino-US relations, and lengthy meetings at the Great Hall of the People, Trump and Xi lavished praise on each other in a joint appearance before the media.

But both leaders stopped short of taking any questions, opting to only make statements.

The joint appearance was to announce the signing of about US$250 billion in commercial deals between US and Chinese firms for products including 300 Boeing aircraft, car parts, liquefied natural gas and beef.

While the roughly 15 agreements made the US leader’s China visit one of the most fruitful for Chinese and US businesses in terms of the value of deals struck, analysts cautioned that most of the agreements were non-binding memorandums of understanding and could take years to materialise.

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Trump also lashed out at the “very one-sided and unfair” trade relationship between the two countries and said China “must immediately address the unfair trade practices that drive … [a] shockingly” large US trade deficit, along with barriers to market access, forced technology transfers and intellectual property theft.

But Trump made it clear that he blamed his predecessors, not China, for the trade imbalance, and repeatedly praised Xi, calling him “a very special man”.

“After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?” To applause, Trump said: “I give China great credit.”

Xi smiled widely. “Of course there are some frictions, but on the basis of win-win cooperation and fair competition, we hope we can solve all these issues in a frank and consultative way,” the Chinese president said.

Xi insisted the Chinese economy would become increasingly open and transparent to foreign firms, including those from the United States, and welcomed US corporate involvement in his ambitious trade and infrastructure “Belt and Road Initiative”.

Xi also spoke highly of his personal interactions with Trump since their first meeting at the US leader’s Mar-a-Lago resort in April and said summit diplomacy had helped US-China relations reach a “new historic starting point”.

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But efforts should be taken to properly manage the differences between the two nations, he added.

On North Korea, Trump appeared to have made little headway, although US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said there was “no disagreement” between the two leaders on the need to rein in North Korea.

Trump said “China can fix this problem quickly and easily”, urging Beijing, North Korea’s top trading partner and diplomatic backer, to cut financial links with its neighbour.

Orville Schell, a veteran China expert at the Asia Society in New York, said that while both sides might agree on the end goal of a denuclearised North Korea, they apparently have “very large disagreements on tactics and how to achieve these goals”.

Trump also pledged to uphold Washington’s “one China” policy on Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a breakaway province, while Xi agreed to step up military and security ties with the US, including joint operations on United Nations peacekeeping missions and counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

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Schell said the personal rapport between Xi and Trump was clearly something by design, which meant there was no paradigm shift in ties between the two countries.

“We need to wait and see because we don’t know what they really talked about. It is possible that the US president is seeking a non-confrontational relationship with Xi in public while keeping the confrontations that the two countries have to deal with in private,” he said. “In this sense, Trump is very different from [former US president Barack] Obama, who in public is very principled, straightforward and direct. Communist leaders don’t really appreciate that directness.”

Schell said that even though Trump and Xi seemed to have fairly good personal ties, US-China relations were declining rather than moving in a constructive direction.

Richard Bush, a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, also said Trump’s visit continued the ceasefire in the US-China relations. “[But it] will raise questions among some of Trump’s supporters, especially Steve Bannon, that Trump isn’t tough enough with China on what they see as the key issue in the US-China rivalry – economics,” he said.

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Zhang Zhexin, from the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, hailed the success of Trump’s visit, which he said showed China had risen to a status on a par with the US.

“Both countries are winning, and the whole world is winning, too. Because the opposite of win-win is lose-lose, both countries would lose in a confrontational relationship and the whole world would suffer from their confrontations” he said.

Sow Keat Tok, a China expert at the University of Melbourne, said that compared to the embattled US president, Xi appeared to have the upper hand after the consolidation of his power at last month’s Communist Party congress.

“Xi appeared to be in a much better position than he was at Mar-a-Lago, where Trump was riding the upper wave from his newly acquired presidency. But after all, that will not necessarily bring much change to the Sino-US power relationship because it is a largely interdependent relationship now,” he said.

Observers said the impressive headline figure of the deals signed on Thursday was usually a fixture of foreign leaders’ visits to Beijing, and was meant to defuse foreign complaints about China’s trade policies and other thorny issues.

At a state dinner thrown in honour of Trump and his wife Melania at the Great Hall of People, Xi said he had a “firm conviction” that China-US relations had “boundless potential for growth in the future”, despite “limited challenges”.

“China and the United States once walked with animosity [but] have grown into a community with our interests closely converging,” Xi said, before toasting Trump.

“To the prosperity of China and the United States and the well-being of our people.”

Trump responded, saying: “Though we come from different places and faraway lands, there is much that binds the East and the West.

“To the people of your country and to a friendship that will only grow stronger and stronger in the many years to come.”

A video of Trump’s six-year-old granddaughter Arabella Kushner singing a Chinese song and reciting poetry in Mandarin was also played to the guests at the banquet.

Trump will leave Beijing at 9am on Friday to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Da Nang, Vietnam.

Melania Trump will go to the Beijing Zoo and visit a section of Great Wall in suburban Beijing on Friday afternoon.

Additional reporting by Kinling Lo