President Donald Trump is to host Chinese President Xi Jinping beginning Thursday at his Mar-a-Lago resort in the southern United States. But the atmosphere may not turn out to be as warm as the Florida weather.
Trump telegraphed on Twitter his prognosis for his first encounter with China’s president, saying it will be a “very difficult” discussion, since the U.S. can “no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses.”
At a White House meeting last week, Trump told U.S.-based manufacturers they will find it “interesting” to watch his meeting with Xi.
“I look very much forward to meeting him and the delegation. And we’ll see what happens,” Trump said.
The Chinese leader likely won’t arrive empty-handed.
“I foresee that the Chinese will send Xi here with a pretty large and generous gift package, in terms of domestic infrastructure investment here in the United States, and help President Trump to create jobs that he had promised to the voters,” Stimson Center Senior Associate Yun Sun told VOA.
‘Something crazy could happen …’
Some China watchers caution that not everything may go according to script, as this early in the Trump administration much is still unwritten.
“Something crazy could happen unexpected, certainly. You know one tweet could change the trajectory of the meeting to some extent,” says Scott Kennedy, deputy director of China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “But I expect it’s going to be a lot of complaining without a lot of negotiation, specifically, and then the Chinese will leave nervous, anxious. And eventually the other shoe will drop.”
There is a significant chance “Trump makes a comment which Xi could read as a shift in U.S. policy,” predicts Cato Institute policy analyst Eric Gomez. “However, given Trump’s struggle with facts I suspect that Xi will also place greater value on U.S. actions rather than words.”
Gomez tells VOA considering the new administration’s demonstration that “its word is not always its bond, Xi would be foolish to take every statement at face value.”
There is also a perception, both in Washington and Beijing, of an ideological split in the Trump White House between a nationalistic-driven, anti-China faction and a more pragmatic group, especially in terms of trade policy.
Meeting a test for Trump
Some analysts see Xi’s primary goal during the visit is to get a sense of the man in the White House with whom he’ll be presumably negotiating for years to come.
“This is really to test Donald Trump’s mettle,” says Harry Kazianis, who directs defense studies at The Center for the National Interest.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has noted several “big problems” between the United States and China.
“Everything from the South China Sea to trade to North Korea. There are big issues of national and economic security that need to get addressed,” he told reporters. “And I think there’s going to be a lot on the table when it comes to that over the two days that they will talk.”
The president, before getting to the White House last year, talked tough about China. He vowed punitive trade measures. But there has been no such action, so far.
“The 45 percent tariff on Chinese exports to the United States — that has not happened. The currency-manipulator label that he promised has not happened,” notes Yun.
One China policy
China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, sent White House senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who is the president’s son-in-law, drafts of a joint statement the two countries could issue at the conclusion of the summit, according to The New York Times.
Close attention will be paid to any final wording on the One China policy — a highly volatile issue for Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade province.
The United States switched it diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. But the policy was recently thrown into disarray when Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president.
Xi reportedly would not get on the phone with Trump until the U.S. president reaffirmed the policy.
Trump’s America-first agenda and desire to reduce Washington’s global leadership comes as China is extending its reach around the world, noted the South China Morning Post, the leading English-language daily in Hong Kong, in an article headlined “Trump vs Xi: prepare for a clash of views on big global issues.”
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Some Trump stances favor China
The Trump administration is actually viewed as taking some stances helpful to China’s goals, such as withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and, so far, it has not authorized any “freedom of navigation” exercises in the disputed South China Sea waters and airspace Beijing claims as its own. It has kept in place, however, some Obama administration polices Beijing does not like, such as reaffirming Washington’s defense treaty with Tokyo that covers the Senkaku islands, held by Japan and claimed by China.
On the navigation patrols by the U.S. military, which China deems provocative, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the new administration would look to take more robust measures than the Obama administration,” says Andrew Small, senior Transatlantic fellow with the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
But on territorial issues during the meeting in Florida this week, Small on VOA’s Encounters program, predicted “there won’t be a consensus reached on this.”
‘Trade is the wild card’
It is a region, however, where the United States retains tremendous leverage due to its vast alliance relationships “that have withstood the test of time,” compared to China only being able to point to North Korea as a significant ally, said Kazianis on the same VOA program.
But America’s reputation in the Asia-Pacific region has been somewhat tarnished with the Trump Administration’s rejection of the TPP.
“I’m afraid China is the winner out of this new trade policy,” laments Small.
“Trade is the wild card. If the administration takes the very hardline positions that Trump promised during the campaign, then America’s China policy would be much more confrontational than it was under the Obama administration,” says Gomez at the Cato Institute.
The senior advisor on China at CSIS, Christopher Johnson, expresses concern that top Chinese government officials regard the U.S. president akin to an Asian businessman or a potentate, “with whom they can sort of have a very transactional relationship.”
That “caricature-like assessment” could lead to disappointment for Xi, cautions Johnson, who expects President Trump to stand firm when it comes to his belief on the trade imbalance.
Kazianis agrees, predicting that when it comes to trade “President Trump in private is going to take a very hard line.”