DONALD TRUMP MARKED his first meeting as US president with the visiting President Xi Jinping with a display of naked American power, Cruise missile strikes against an airfield in Syria in retaliation for the Assad regime’s chemical attack on a hospital. The timing was coincidental, if opportune, but it was an act of defining and defending national interest of which only one of the two superpowers is currently capable, let alone comfortable, in undertaking.
The signalling was palpable. Moreover, it was an action that also had many observers quickly connecting the dots to North Korea, a country Trump had threatened unilateral US action if China did not start to exert the control over its ally that Washington believes it can and should.
Xi’s visit was always going to be scrutinised for the subtle signs of a power play between the two men. The ‘optics’ would be as important as the outcomes. However, it also carried considerable domestic political risk for Xi, making the trip to the United States early in Trump’s presidency (and to a golf course resort, at that) with all the risk of Trump’s unpredictability providing a loss of face for no very certain reward. The deflection of much of the world’s attention elsewhere would not necessarily have been unwelcome.
It is hard, though, to imagine the trip was undertaken without assurances there would be some return. The pre-trip speculation was of an agreement, if longer on affirmation than detail, on a joint reset of tackling North Korea’s nuclear ambition and some public US affirmation to Beijing over arms sales to Taiwan and the ‘one China’ policy.
In the event, the publicly announced outcomes were more modest, though likely of Beijing’s design, a 100-day plan to discuss trade talks directed at boosting US exports and reducing Washington’s trade deficit with China, and an invitation to Trump to make a state visit to China, which the US president accepted for a date to be arranged.
Trade is the lowest-hanging fruit for restoring relations between the two countries to an even keel. The direction of travel favours more US exports to China, especially once the rebalancing of the economy to more domestic consumption takes hold, while the One Belt, One Road initiative, to which the United States has now been asked to join, offers the prospect for more business and investment than China can handle alone.
Difficult issues — North Korea, Taiwan, the South China Sea — offer scant prospect of early harvesting.
The agreement to trade talks is positive, in the sense that it shows Trump can be steered away from his fiery anti-China rhetoric of the campaign trail last year. Further evidence that the reality of office is taking hold over the rhetoric of candidacy is that the Trump administration has so far declined to carry through on pre-election threats to brand China a currency manipulator or impose punitive tariffs on Chinese exports to the United States.
That the US president said that he was willing to further strengthen cooperation with China in economy, military affairs and people-to-people exchanges and support China’s efforts in pursuing corrupt officials who had fled China with ill-gotten gains will all be taken as evidence of success by Xi’s team, whose overarching goal was to restore stability and order to the relationship so they can manage it. Trump’s description of his personal relationship with Xi as “outstanding” will have been a bonus, though Trump will likely find eventually that that friendship will come with trappings.
State media have been quick to present the Florida summit as continuation of policy between the world’s two leading nations. “Expanding win-win cooperation” and “managing differences” and developing “dialogue and cooperation between China and the United States in such areas as diplomacy and security, economy, law enforcement and cyber security, as well as social and people-to-people exchanges” represents a good outcome for Xi, even if it is not the language of concrete gains for American manufacturing workers that reverse trade deficits and job losses that Trump had previously told his blue-collar economic nationalist supporters he laid squarely at China’s door.
The harsh truth is that it is not that group that stands to benefit from growing US trade with China. The winners will be the same ones that were the winners from globalisation.
The longer-term win for Xi is that summit has steered one of the world’s most important relationships, that between China and the United States, further in the direction of an arrangement of international affairs that is based on bilateral relationships between great powers than the post-World War Two system of international rules — something Xi has previously described as “a new model of great power relations” and which aligns with China’s efforts to construct a parallel architecture for global governance with itself in the centre.
The US president, who seems to prefer to focus on winning battles rather than wars, may well not realise what his guest has walked away with.