NEWS OF THE planned summit between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ), to be held at the billionaire’s lavish Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, from April 6 to 7, might prompt memories of those heady days in 2013 when Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama hosted the Chinese leader at the Sunnylands retreat in California.
But the first Trump-Xi summit is unlikely to be as relaxing or as intimate as the one four years back when the competition and rivalry between the world’s two largest economies was less intense.
The highly anticipated encounter comes amid growing uncertainty in the global economy, with anti-globalisation and protectionist sentiments on the rise. It also comes amid growing security concerns: an increasingly volatile North Korea and escalating territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas.
At the Sunnylands summit, Xi raised the idea of a “new type of relations between major powers”, based on “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”.
Such wishful thinking and goodwill has long since faded, chased away by the advent of Trumpism.
In recent months, Trump has repeatedly thrown Sino-US relations into disarray, highlighting grievances with Beijing over the trade deficit, labelling China a currency manipulator and threatening to impose a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese goods. He has also condemned China’s military expansion in the South and East China Seas and accused Beijing of inaction over North Korea’s nuclear programme.
Before the leaders enjoy the famously welcoming weather of Florida, diplomats from both nations must first find a way to lower the tensions so that there can be a harmonious atmosphere – the first step to ensuring a smooth summit.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been tasked, in his first visit to China this week, with ensuring the summit is a textbook example of “win-win” diplomacy.
First of all, Trump will want Xi to help address America’s huge trade deficit with China, which stood at US$350 billion last year and a whopping US$1.4 trillion since 2013 when Xi took the helm. The issue is at the heart of Trump’s “America First” diplomacy, and his campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again”.
He will also want to talk about the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China claims sovereignty over 90 per cent of these waters, but Washington and its allies in the region have squarely rejected the claims. Washington also supports Tokyo in its territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea.
Meanwhile, Trump has also made Taiwan a hot-button issue by openly challenging the long existing “one-China” policy and breaking diplomatic protocol to have a telephone conservation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. Trump has toned down the rhetoric on this issue, but has still signalled he plans to upgrade ties with the island that Beijing sees as a renegade province, despite furious protests from mainland China.
The most urgent issue is increasing tension in the Korean peninsula following the deployment of the US-developed Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, designed to protect the South against the nuclear threat from the North. Beijing suspects Washington plans to use the system’s powerful radar to spy on China.
The skirmish underscores the growing rivalry between the capitalist super power and the fast rising communist giant for regional and global domination on everything from trade and the economy, to the military, diplomatic and ideological spheres.
Conflicts of interest are likely only to increase as these two politically ambitious leaders seek to transform their nations and gain superiority. This summit gives them a rare occasion to figure out in what areas they must compromise if they are to prevent a clash between these two most powerful of nations. ■
Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s