Chinese President Xi Jinping may have a hard time understanding which President Donald Trump he will encounter when the two meet in Mar-a-Lago in Florida on April 6 and 7.
Would it be the Trump who has accused China of “raping our country” and being a currency manipulator, or the more transactional and ideology-free businessman with next-to-nothing grasp of complex diplomacy?
There are apprehensions that while Xi will come fully prepared to the meeting, as is his wont, Trump will improvise as he goes along. One will bring deep deliberateness to the exchange even as the other will choose to wing it.
The highly contrasting styles between the inscrutably modest Xi and the unabashedly vainglorious Trump are expected to inform the first meeting between the two leaders. The US President has already telegraphed via Twitter that he expects the meeting to be “very difficult” because of the “massive trade deficits”. Xi, on the other hand, has refrained from hyper-ventilating in keeping with the traditional style of the Chinese leadership.
The choice of Mar-a-Lago, a property owned by Trump, is a careful one aimed at giving a tropical backdrop to a relationship which is at best unpredictable. Trump muddied the waters early on when he chose to speak to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen in December last year, weeks before being sworn in, much to Beijing’s chagrin. It was for the first time an elected President had spoken to Taiwan’s leader since 1979.
China regards Taiwan as one of its breakaway provinces and Washington has historically respected theone-China policy. In playing down the disquiet over his phone conversation with the Taiwanese leader, Trump had then tweeted: “Interesting how the US sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”
The Taiwan matter appears to have been put to rest after, according to The New York Times, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, in tandem with Chinese Ambassador to Washington Cui Tiankai, arranged a phone call between the two leaders in February. According to the newspaper, during that conversation Trump “pledged to abide by the four-decade-old one-China policy on Taiwan, despite his earlier suggestion that it was up for negotiation”.
That, coupled with not following up on his rather ludicrous promise of declaring China a currency manipulator on day one of his administration — now more than 70 days into it — is expected to have given Xi some sense of the chasm between what Trump declaims and what he actually might do. There are reports of China’s diplomatic establishment having learned that the best way to reach and influence Trump is via his family. To that end, his son-in-law Kushner has emerged as the conduit.
Beijing has also been rather kind to Trump’s business in China by approving several trademark applications of The Trump Organisation that were pending for quite some time. Kushner came close to selling a prime piece of New York real estate to the politically well-connected Chinese company, Anbang Insurance Group, but shied away amid mounting criticism over conflict of interest.
None of this, of course, still means that Trump will not play hardball with Xi for public consumption in order to keep his core base in good humour. There are expectations that recognising the value of not triggering a trade war and creating an appearance of helping the US President, Xi might announce some significant investment in infrastructure projects, which Trump can then relay as a triumph of his tough talk on Twitter.
Last year, China invested $45 billion in America in real estate, finance and entertainment. A sizable investment in infrastructure projects with the potential to create construction jobs of the kind that would benefit Trump’s core constituents is an attractive proposition for the Chinese leader.
The two will meet amid a polar switch in the way they view the global roles of their respective countries. Xi has emerged as a passionate advocate of unfettered global trade while Trump has been a vocal proponent of protectionism and trade barriers as part of his “America first” and “buy American, hire American” philosophy. Even on the existential crisis of climate change, it is China that has been taking the global leadership position even as Trump and his cohorts have been busy rubbishing the whole science behind it.
No one seriously believes that the meeting will convert Trump back to a globalist and a supporter of climate change policies. In a way, Trump’s policy of retreat from a global engagement suits China eminently as it goes about assertively assuming that mantle. At the same time, Xi will be mindful that Trump’s threat of imposing a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese imports does not become a reality considering that the Chinese economy is experiencing its own often understated albeit serious strains.
One particular issue that is expected to consume considerable oxygen is North Korea, particularly in the light of Trump’s ultimatum that the US would go it alone if China did not lean on Pyongyang to end its nuclear programme. In an interview with The Financial Times, he said: “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” but refrained from giving any details on how. This could be part of his characteristic grandstanding before his meeting with Xi.
On his part, the Chinese leader may be keen on resolving North Korean President Kim Jong-un’s increasingly belligerent posturing but without destabilising the already embattled neighbour because that will have direct consequences for Beijing.
It is one of those meetings where China may opt to play chess even as America goes for checkers.