SINGAPORE: Chinese President Xi Jinping met with United States President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida on April 6-7.
This summit was a significant one for both President Xi and President Trump personally, for both China and the US, and for the future of Asia-Pacific region as a whole.
However, no concrete outcomes were produced because the two leaders had different agendas.
Apparently, Trump had high expectations for the summit. He had two top priorities in his agenda: The trade deficit and North Korea.
On the issue of trade deficit with China, Trump anticipated difficulties in his talks with his Chinese counterpart. Having promised during his 2016 campaign to stop “the theft of American jobs by China”, Trump was concerned with concrete terms of concessions from Xi.
The fact that the US trade deficit with China declined sharply in February 2017 was probably conducive for more constructive talks. The trade deficit fell from US$48.2 billion in January 2017 to US$43.6 billion in February 2017, a dip of 9.6 per cent, due to a record drop of imports from China to the US and a small increase of exports from the US to China.
On the issue of North Korea’s nuclear programme, Trump hoped to press China to cooperate more closely with the United States on his terms. His declaration ahead of the summit that the United States would deal with North Korea alone was a signal that Trump would like Xi’s cooperation over North Korea’s nuclear weapons issue on his terms.
For Trump, China’s proposal of the “double halt” (North Korea would halt (suspend) its nuclear programme and the US, South Korea, and Japan would halt (call off) their joint military drills) would not work.
For Xi, however, the most important aspect of the Xi-Trump summit was not so much about China-US relations but about China’s domestic politics.
In contrast to his predecessors such as Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi prefers to monopolize China’s policy toward the United States. Under Jiang and Hu, both the president and the premier were main players of China-US relations.
Following President Jiang’s state visit in October-November 1997, for instance, Premier Zhu Rongji also paid an important visit to the United States in April 1999 to pave the way for China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Premier Wen Jiabao had a fruitful visit to the United States in December 2003, nine months after he had become China’s premier. But the current premier of China, Premier Li Keqiang, has not been allowed to visit the United States after four years in office, even though he was permitted to be in New York in September 2016 to address the United Nations General Assembly.
Compared to that of his predecessors, Xi’s approach to China-US relations has one clear advantage: He would be able to claim all the credit if things go well. The downside of this approach is that he also has to take all the blame if things do not go well.
Xi’s “resort diplomacy” (“zhuangyuan waijiao”) in June 2013, for example, was a major victory for Xi because President Obama seemed to have endorsed Xi’s concept of a “new type of great power relationship” (“xinxing daguo guanxi”) between China and the United States.
Unfortunately, Xi’s state visit to the United States in September 2015 saw the end of that consensus because President Obama dropped any reference to any type of new relations between great powers.
When US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described the bilateral relationship between the United States and China as one built on “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation” during his trip to China in March 2017, President Xi was all ears. One purpose of Xi’s visit to the Mar-a-Lago resort was probably to hear these words again from President Trump.
Having been installed as the core of the Chinese Communist leadership at the Sixth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2016, Xi’s real intention for the summit was to demonstrate to his domestic audience that he is the man who could handle President Trump.
US MILITARY STRIKE ON SYRIA AND THE TRUMP-XI SUMMIT
With his unilateral move against Syria during the summit with the Chinese president, Trump emerged as a major winner.
While he was expected to address bilateral and regional issues with the leader of an emerging superpower on an equal footing, President Trump sent a clear signal to the world that the US President remains the most powerful leader on this planet.
He took a unilateral action against Syria without China, even though he was scheduled to meet with Xi. He ordered the firing of 59 cruise missiles at a military target in Syria, en route to his summit with Xi, in the afternoon of Thursday (Apr 6), and delivered a statement minutes after his dinner with the Chinese leader.
In the eyes of Trump, the Chinese president is not a world leader by any means. It was unnecessary for him to consult with or inform the Chinese leader over an issue in the Middle East.
By the same token, Trump seems to have sent a message to the international community that China is not a regional leader in the Asia-Pacific region either. As a player who might have influence over North Korea, China would have to take hints from US’s leadership on the North Korean nuclear weapons problem.
Because of the military strike, the summit itself became insignificant. There was overwhelmingly more media attention on the strike than on the summit.
For the protocol sensitive Chinese audience, Xi was a bit embarrassed when Trump arrived at the same airport – Palm Beach International Airport – one hour later than Xi because this could be hardly seen as a sign of a warm welcome by a host.
Also, Trump ostensibly tilted away from Xi and toward his wife at the dinner; and Trump joked about his substantial talks with Xi yielding “absolutely nothing”.
THE OUTCOMES OF THE XI-TRUMP SUMMIT
From the perspective of the Americans, Trump dominated the summit. He was able to get Xi to agree to reduce China’s trade surplus with the United States. According to US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the Chinese expressed an interest in reducing China’s trade surplus as a way of controlling their own inflation.
Trump also was pleased with Xi’s agreement that North Korea’s nuclear advances had reached a “very serious stage”.
However, it is not realistic to expect China to deliver on the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons issue. In recent years, Beijing’s influence over the North Korean leadership has significantly waned.
Compared to his predecessors, Xi has the least influence over his counterpart in Pyongyang. In March 1990, General Secretary Jiang Zemin chose North Korea as his first foreign country to visit. Hu Jintao also developed good relations with his counterpart, Kim Jong-il.
Out of his seven visits from 2000 to 2011, Kim Jong-il came to China five times when Hu was president. In 2010 alone, he visited China twice for five days each.
In contrast, Xi has not visited Pyongyang since becoming China’s president in November 2012. Nor has the top leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, has visited Beijing. Currently, the bilateral relationship is at an all-time low.
As a gesture of supporting US’s policy of economic sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, Beijing decided to ban its coal imports from North Korea in February 2017.
It is likely that Xi might agree to more measures of economic sanctions against North Korea but it is difficult to imagine that China would support a military option.
From the perspective of the Chinese, Xi delivered a great performance as the head of state of China. He famously remarked that there are “a thousand reasons to make the China-US relationship work, and no reason to break it”; and he invited Trump for a state visit to China in 2017.
Although Xi’s first summit with Trump was upstaged by Trump’s military strike on Syria, the visit was not a complete failure. In addition to Trump’s acceptance of his invitation to pay a state visit to China in 2017, Xi also managed to make Trump to agree to his proposal to upgrade a US-China dialogue by putting the two presidents at the head of the forum.
This upgrade means virtually nothing for the US President but has added another title of great political importance to the Chinese president, who has already acquired 12 other administrative titles in addition to being the President of China.
In spite of “tremendous progress” declared by Trump at the conclusion of the summit, neither presidents made any reference to a new type of great power relationship between China and the United States during their meetings.
It remains to be seen how the bilateral relationship would evolve when President Trump comes to Beijing.
Dr Bo Zhiyue, a leading authority on China’s elite politics in the world, is founder and president of the Bo Zhiyue China Institute, a consulting firm providing services on China to heads of governments and CEOs of multinational corporations.