The widely anticipated summit between the world’s two most powerful men defied all earlier expectations. Instead of a clash of titans, or a newfound bromance between the protagonists, the world witnessed a surreal melange of fine dining with Tomahawk missiles flying into the sky.
The Syrian crisis managed partly to overshadow the whole affair. Shortly before his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, United States President Donald Trump ordered his generals to punish Syria’s Assad regime for an alleged chemical weapons attack against civilians. It was one of those rare moments when the flamboyant American leader decided to rely on deliberate and low-key consultations with military experts, rather than indulging in his characteristic chutzpah and bravado.
But Trump and Xi had tough and extensive discussions on a whole range of issues. It seems the superpowers decided to agree to disagree for now, opting for a more institutionalised interaction to manage areas of conflict, particularly on North Korea and trade, and expand areas of cooperation.
For Trump, China has been a favourite punching bag to rally his Jacksonian base. In fact, many would argue that pouncing on the Asian juggernaut was Trump’s ultimate launching pad to the presidency. It allowed the controversial plutocrat to reach out to disaffected blue-collar workers in the very swing states, which handed him the presidency, though not the popular vote.
The past few weeks haven’t been good to Trump. Aside from historically low trust ratings, he has been reeling from back-to-back defeats, first on a series of controversial travel bans that were overturned by courts, and later a healthcare bill that was rejected before even reaching the congressional floor. So he was desperate to score some victory which he could brandish on his Twitter account.
On his part, Xi, who will confront a challenging leadership reshuffle later this year, was eager to bolster his own credentials at home. He had to exhibit both toughness (to secure China’s national dignity) and flexibility (to avoid unnecessary conflict with the US). Walking a fine line when dealing with a mercurial, larger-than-life character such asTrump was no easy task.
The art of no deal
During his presidential campaign, Trump lamented: “We’re so predictable. We’re like bad checker players.” Trump promised an “art of the deal” president, a tough negotiator who will adopt an “America first” doctrine in his dealing with the world.
In fairness, Trump managed to catch his Chinese counterparts by surprise. They planned a heavily choreographed affair, which would have portrayed Xi as a sober, dignified and affable co-equal of the American president. Instead, they had to revisit their assumptions about Trump completely.
Trump showed that he was far from a paper tiger, but more of a deceptively flamboyant sphinx with many tricks up his sleeve.
As one veteran China watcher eloquently put it, Trump’s decisive and surprising Syria decision “will force Chinese officials to reappraise a figure whom they had come to see as clownish and manageable”.
This is particularly relevant in the case of North Korea, which has stepped up its provocative military activities and is on the verge of acquiring the capacity to launch nuclear warheads into mainland America.
Trump wants China to step up diplomatic pressure on and squeeze the North Korean regime economically. But China fears the collapse of its ally, which could create a massive humanitarian crisis, leave nuclear and biological weapons unaccounted for, and pave the way for the creation of a powerful, unified Korean peninsula allied with Washington.
However, the main bone of contention between Trump, an ardent protectionist, and Xi, a reluctant globalist, is America’s ballooning trade deficit with China, amounting to $347bn. Earlier, Trump declared he wont’ “allow China to rape” America in trade relations, making it clear that his policy is to make sure America “no longer ha[s] massive trade deficits and job losses”.
He has threatened to label China as a currency manipulator, review its non-market economy status, and impose tariffs and punitive sanctions against Beijing. Eager to head off a trade war, Xi offered Trump a series of “tweetable” incentives, including massive Chinese investments that could create up to 700,000 jobs in America; large-scale purchase of US-made aircraft from Boeing; and opening up of automotive, agriculture and consumer markets to US companies.
There was neither a joint communique, nor a joint news conference. But both sides agreed to have a long-term dialogue to manage their trade and geopolitical differences. To improve ties with Trump, China is likely to expand sanctions on North Korea. It has already agreed to a 100-day plan for trade talks, which will allow America to address its trade deficit with China.
Trump expressed his optimism over “a very, very great relationship” with Beijing and an “outstanding” one with Xi, who, in turn, lauded the ability of both sides to “arrive at many common understandings” and “bear our great historical responsibility” to develop a stable great power relationship.
By and large, the summit ended up as a surprisingly sober and admirable diplomatic icebreaker, holding the promise of more institutionalised dialogue between the two most consequential powers of the century.