As President Xi Jinping touched down in Palm Beach, Florida, in the early afternoon of April 6 for his first face-to-face encounter with the brash and flamboyant American president, US-China relations were poised in a state of suspended animation.
Four questions loomed over the gathering at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s officially designated ‘Winter White House’.
First, would Donald Trump be an exception to the presidential rule on America’s China policy? For four decades and counting, US presidential candidates have typically made harsh pronouncements regarding China. Yet incumbency has elicited a more pragmatic tone of voice and deed, as presidents tend to revert to the mean in China policy.
President Trump is hardly a typical or conventional American president however. Having styled himself as an anti-establishment leader with a determination, first and foremost, to set America’s yawning trade deficit with China straight, Trump – more than any of his predecessors – appeared equipped to break with this mean reversion rule on China policy.
Second, would Xi be able to develop a personal chemistry with the American president during their first meeting? Politically, they appear as different as chalk and cheese. Xi envisions himself as the great captain and consolidator of the ship of state and party who will boldly navigate China along the challenging reformist path ahead. Trump, by contrast, views himself as the great disruptor, upending the system to regenerate his country and ‘Make America Great Again’.
Third, could the two presidents enjoy a frank exchange of views on the numerous issues that divide Washington and Beijing, such that each could convey his bottom line on these issues to his counterpart? If not, could they at least lay out their most important priorities and, on this foundation, build a basis of cooperation that seeks out common ground among differences and respects each other’s aspirations and concerns?
Fourth, looking ahead, could the two presidents craft an institutionalised framework or format of cooperation that would be comprehensive in its coverage of issues, yet discard the Obama-era Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) that had proven top-heavy, clunky, and in the main, unproductive?
By all accounts, Trump and Xi made substantial progress on each of these fronts, despite the shadow of the US missile strike on Syria over their meeting.
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At Mar-a-Lago, both presidents re-dedicated their countries to a pragmatic and productive bilateral relationship in the vein of their predecessors, grasping in the process, too, the immense symbolism of the occasion and the overriding importance of the bilateral relationship in regional and global affairs. To Trump’s credit, he appears to have fully come to grips with the reality that the US-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none.
Both presidents spoke in warm, even effusive, tones about the other – holding out the potential for establishing a sufficiently productive rapport such that each could pick up the phone on short notice and speak to his counterpart if a crisis was to arise? At the end of the day, in their political agendas too, both presidents appear fated to cooperate. The China Dream and Make America Great Again are twin versions of the same aspiration which cannot be achieved through confrontation.
Both presidents succeeded in institutionalising their bilateral engagements in a framework that is as comprehensive and multifaceted as the breadth of their relationship. Going forward, four newly established high-level mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation are to be set up in the areas of diplomacy and security, economy, law enforcement and cybersecurity, as well as for social and people-to-people exchanges. Dependable channels of communication across these issue areas are expected to follow. By contrast, the three-pillar institutional framework that Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had set up in Mar-a-Lago two months earlier was confined to economic issues only.
Finally, both presidents laid out their important economic, diplomatic and geopolitical priorities, including an exchange of views on regional hot-button issues. Presentation of their bottom lines on each of these issues will however have to wait till a qualitatively greater level of trust and confidence is instilled in their one-on-one relationship. At this time, a foundation for that future exchange of bottom-line views was initiated. Separately, individual cabinet-level interactions were conducted, including the first comprehensive economic dialogue featuring US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and a 100–day early harvest action plan on trade with “way-stations of accomplishment,” as characterised by US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, set in motion.
Looking forward, the going will not get any easier, especially on the hot-button issues.
On North Korea, Trump will press Xi, including under pain of secondary sanctions imposed on Chinese entities, to demand that Kim Jong-un freeze his missile and nuclear programme or face total isolation. For his part, Xi remains wedded to the ‘suspension-for-suspension’ proposal (suspension of Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear activities for a halt or downgrading of US-South Korea military exercises) and the ‘parallel track’ approach (denuclearisation of the peninsula and replacing the Korean armistice with a peace agreement) which point in a very different direction.
On Taiwan, Xi will press Trump to adhere strictly to the ‘one-China’ policy and desist from any significant arms sales or upgrading in the official level of US representation to the government in Taipei. Disquieting undercurrents in Washington’s cross-strait policy suggests both might be on the anvil. Whether Trump could, at the margins, trade his interest in arms sales to Taipei for heightened Chinese sanctions against Pyongyang, including a partial embargo on oil sales, may be an option worth exploring.
Finally, trade and economic policy challenges will remain a hard nut to crack. While Xi will be amenable to making the trade, economic and investment relationships more balanced and reciprocal, he will insist that such ties be tethered to the principles of openness and respect for international law. The Trump administration, at this time and into the foreseeable future, is likely to remain internally divided on both these principles.
The formidable differences notwithstanding, Mar-a-Lago was win-win for the presidents. To a sceptical audience that has rarely been able to see much beyond the structural dilemmas baked into the US-China relationship or the political failings of the new American president, both Trump and Xi communicated their point loud and clear: yes, we can. Now it’s for the sceptics to decide whether this is change they can believe in.
Sourabh Gupta is a senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington