The summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s leader Xi Jinping was a meeting that many around the world have been expecting for a long time. In addition to being considered the most important meeting in the world, due to the rapid rise of the Chinese economy and its increasing contestation of U.S. interests and those of its allies in the South China Sea and East China Sea, what made the meeting interesting and expected has been President Trump’s position in regards to China.
Trump’s interest in China and his strong criticism of “unfair trade practices” and “currency manipulation” have been consistent for a long time. In 2011, when he was interviewed by Xinhua, he mentioned that he had been following China very closely. He said he had read a hundreds of books on China and claimed that he understood the Chinese mind. He even listed the best books on China he had read during the interview, which included Henry Kissinger’s “On China,” biographies of major Chinese leaders and works on China’s foreign policy goals in regions like Africa. During his election campaign, one of Trump’s most solid positions in foreign policy was in regards to China. In numerous different instances he criticized China and complained about President Barack Obama being too soft on the Asian country. In addition to bringing jobs back to the U.S. from China, he reiterated in multiple different instances that he will declare China a currency manipulator in his first days in office.
The latest meeting between Trump and Xi gave no concrete indication of whether any discussion on how the fluctuating relationship between the U.S. and China will continue in the future
Even after the election this position did not change much. His phone call to the Taiwanese president, days after his electoral victory, was a shocking and unexpected development for observers of U.S.-China relations. Later, amid criticism of his phone call, President-elect Trump targeted China from his Twitter account. In two tweets, Trump accused China of manipulating its currency, taxing U.S. imports and building bases in the South China Sea. It was not only his tweets and rhetoric that made many nervous in regards to the future of U.S.-China relations. Some of his appointments, such as Peter Navarro, the author of books such as, “The Coming China Wars: Where They Will Be Fought, How They Can Be Won,” “Death by China: Confronting the Dragon – A Global Call to Action,” and “Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World” also generated concern about Trump’s position in regards to relations with China.
Since his inauguration, however, there has been a significant calming of the tone on the part of the president. The president abandoned the fiery rhetoric he employed about trade with China during his election campaign. This however did not exactly change the perception of the new administration in China. In addition to these post-election tweets, President Trump’s rather collegial relations with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, despite the U.S. withdrawal from the TPP, generated questions in regards to the new administration’s policy. Finally, the summit between Xi and Trump was scheduled. Everyone warily anticipated the geopolitical and geo-economic outcome of the summit and worried about the personal chemistry between the two leaders. Days before the meeting, Trump tweeted in order to signal the mood and expectations in Washington, DC. In these tweets he said, “The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits…and job losses. American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives.”
This very important summit in the Mar-a-Lago resort, which started in a rather positive spirit, was soon overshadowed by the U.S. military strikes against an air base in Syria, following the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria. Because of the timing of the attacks, some have even speculated that the attacks are a message to the North Korean regime amid the increasing tension in the region. After meetings between the two leaders, there is no clear indication of what the possible trajectory of relations between the two countries will be. Although President Trump mentioned that there had been “tremendous progress” in bilateral relations, it is not clear whether the two countries can reach an agreement or find a solution for decades-old problems. It was reported that the two sides agreed to work in order to “decrease the trade deficit.” There is a positive note in regards to containing the threat of North Korea but again there is not an immediate indication of the possible areas and methods of cooperation.
There are still many question marks about bilateral relations. It seems that the South China Sea issue was not a priority on the agenda between the two countries. Similarly the cyber security and hacking debates did not play a prominent part in the journalistic reports that followed the summit. This demonstrated that the more rocky issues between the two countries are still present and these issues will necessitate a new form of diplomacy between the two countries.
People like Zbigniew Brzezinski once said that the summits between American and Chinese leaders are so important that today they might as well as be called the G2 summits. Trump’s meeting Xi was another round of these extremely difficult meetings. For now, there is little change in the focus of relations. Both sides seem to be aware of the potentially destabilizing impact any tension in bilateral relations could generate in international economics. However, the risks, especially in the South China Sea, could lead to tension in the region that might escalate rather quickly. Just before the dinner on the first day of the meetings, Trump jokingly said that, “We had a long discussion already. So far, I have gotten nothing. Absolutely nothing! But we have developed a friendship. I can see that. I think, long-term, we are going to have a very, very great relationship and I look very much forward to it.” Many in the world are also trying to understand what kind of relations will develop in the long term.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on April 9, 2017.