By H. H. S. Viswanathan*
The expectations from the summit at Mar-a-Lago on 7 April where President Donald Trump laid the red carpet for the Chinese President Xi Jinping were high. Only a few weeks ago, the relations between the two countries had deteriorated to unprecedented levels. To many, the fact that the two leaders were meeting was itself very significant. Under such circumstances, what could one realistically hope for?
For all the pre-summit hype, the event does not seem to have achieved anything of significance. Yes, the personal chemistry between the leaders was reported to be excellent which, by itself, is a positive factor. It is possible that neither side wanted to push any particular issue too strongly for fear of loss of face in this first face-to-face meeting where they may have been just assessing each other.
The issues that would come up from the US side for discussions were very clear before the summit — North Korea, East Asia Maritime Security, South China Sea, bilateral trade deficit and investments and the direction of the global economy. On all these issues, Trump had taken a hard anti-China stand in his campaign rhetoric and even after being elected. He had a telephonic conversation with the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, an action no previous American President had taken in the last four decades. He later even questioned the sanctity of the “One China” policy. He called China as the worst currency manipulator and threatened to impose 45% tariffs on Chinese products. He did soften the rhetoric in the subsequent period. In his first telephonic conversation with Xi, he assured him that he would respect the “One China” policy. With all these flip-flops, everyone was wondering what he would say at Mar-a-Lago.
According to Chinese analysts, Xi’s main goal was to get Trump to agree to a broad framework for China-US relations that respects China’s core interests, read Taiwan, Tibet and South China Sea. The other goal was to try and avoid a trade war with the US.
Both Trump and Xi Jinping had to take care of their respective domestic angles. After all the tough talk, Trump couldn’t afford to appear being soft on China for fear of losing popularity among his supporters. On Xi Jinping’s side, the domestic angle was even more pronounced. Later this year, the Communist Party of China (CPC) will have its 19th Congress where the leadership and the direction of the Party for the next decade will be decided. There is widespread speculation that with the extreme centralization of power under him, Xi is planning to remain in power after his 10 year tenure ends in 2022. This would be an unprecedented step. If his views are to be pushed through the Party Congress, he had to appear to be standing up to the global power of the US. Having whipped up ultra-nationalistic sentiments over the last five years, Xi could not be seen as weak, particularly after all the earlier anti-China rhetoric of Trump.
It does not appear to be so. On Trump’s side, he did raise the question of North Korea. But Xi did not go beyond the usual position. That is why Trump had to announce after the visit that if Beijing could not deal with North Korea, the US would act unilaterally. As far as trade is concerned, a deficit of over $300 billion cannot be realistically resolved in the short or medium terms. It was, however, announced after the visit that “a 100 day action plan” to tackle trade issues was agreed upon. It was also decided to create four dialogue mechanisms for the Presidents to discuss bilateral issues. How effective these initiatives will be is to be seen in the coming months. For the time being, each side is interpreting them in its own way.
On Xi’s side, he could not push his idea of a new type of great power relations (Xin Xing de da guo guanxi) which did not have much traction with President Obama. The Chinese, over the past few months, repackaged it into four elements — no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win partnership. This is exactly the previous formulation but for the deletion of the words “core interests.” It is significant that during the visit of the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Beijing in March, he had parroted the four elements as being the guiding principles of the relations between the two countries. This may have raised Xi’s hope of getting such an endorsement from Trump. But it was not to be. This has also led to some speculation about a difference of views between the State Department and the White House on the issue.
The bland post-summit assessments of the two sides bring out the lack of concrete results. The most important outcome, of course, is the good personal chemistry that the two leaders seem to have developed. Trump remarked that “the two countries had made tremendous progress in our relationship.” Xi told Xinhua that he gained a better understanding of the US President and that the two had cemented their “mutual trust and reached many major consensuses.” The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the talks as “constructive and they would set the pace for future Sino-American relations.” The subsequent media coverage on both sides gave enough favorable spin on the summit. The Chinese official media was much more positive probably due to domestic reasons.
The US missile attack on Syria precisely when the ceremonial banquet was going on was certainly a dampener. The Chinese reaction to the attack came only after Xi had left the US when the Chinese PR to the UN Liu Jieyi issued a rather mild statement saying, “the military action of the US will only worsen the suffering of the Syrian people and make the situation in Syria and the region more complicated and turbulent.”
What will be the impact of the summit on Sino-US relations? There may be no immediate progress on any of the major issues. However, both the leaders have built a working relationship which could help in a better understanding of each other. It could also help them with their domestic constituencies.