22 March 2019
Following their two-day meeting in Palm Beach, California, Chinese President Xi Jinping invited US President Donald Trump to visit China within the next eight months. Photo: Reuters
Following their two-day meeting in Palm Beach, California, Chinese President Xi Jinping invited US President Donald Trump to visit China within the next eight months. Photo: Reuters

After Trump-Xi meeting, bilateral relationship back on track

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s two-day summit meeting with Donald Trump, overshadowed by the US attack on Syria, gave each president the chance to take the measure of the other and, apparently, each liked what he saw.

From the Chinese perspective, things went very well indeed, with China taking the initiative and the Americans going along.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that. Trump had plans to pressure Xi to reduce the US trade deficit. Trump also expected Xi to “step up” and help rein in North Korea. Neither thing happened.

From the beginning, China felt it had the situation under control. Rex Tillerson had shown willingness to placate China by adopting its vocabulary – “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” – to describe the relationship.

A major commentary published in the People’s Daily on April 1 was headlined “Xi Jinping’s big diplomatic move draws global attention”.

It discussed Xi’s state visit to Finland, followed by his tête-à-tête in Palm Springs with Donald Trump. This, the official party paper indicated, was Xi’s initiative.

Indeed, the Mar-a-Lago meeting was a big diplomatic move by Xi. After months in which Trump, first as candidate, then as president-elect, and finally as president, castigated China for “raping” the US, for “stealing” American jobs and then announcing that he might depart from the “one China” policy adopted by the US since the 1970s, China decided that it had to rein him in.

Beijing’s first notable success was when Trump promised Xi over the phone that he would abide by the “one China” policy after all.

Next, given Trump’s penchant for reversing himself, the Chinese pushed for an early summit, wanting to ensure they could lock in their gains.

China’s goal for the summit was simple: to ensure that the bilateral relationship, which had helped China become the world’s second largest economy in less than four decades, stayed on track.

Many speculated that China would offer concessions up front. Ely Ratner, of the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted: “Xi will show up with a bag of political goodies for Trump, expected to include pledges of big, ‘tweetable’ Chinese investments in the United States.”

Instead, the Chinese came empty-handed. As Trump said after the first day of talks, “We had a long discussion already. So far, I have gotten nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

In the end, the two sides agreed on a “100-day plan” including “way-stations of accomplishment”.

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross hailed this as “the most significant thing” because trade discussions normally go on for years.

The objective, Ross said, is to increase US exports to China and reduce the US trade deficit. So the can was kicked down the road, for now.

The Syrian attack could be seen as a message to China that the US was capable of acting alone, including on North Korea.

If so, it had no discernible impact. North Korea was discussed but there was no agreement. However, China, unlike Russia, did not condemn the US missile strike.

The only concrete achievement of the summit was an agreement on a format for continued communications.

The Obama administration in 2009 launched the ministerial-level annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

Now, at Xi’s suggestion, there will be a new framework, the Comprehensive Dialogue, overseen by the two presidents, consisting of four pillars: diplomacy and security; the economy; law enforcement and cybersecurity, and social and people-to-people exchanges. This was accepted by Trump.

So the summit’s one concrete deliverable was a Chinese proposal accepted by the US.

To China, the relationship with the US is central, and Beijing needed to ensure its stable development given an unorthodox new US administration.

Of course, China’s success in maintaining the relationship doesn’t spell an American defeat.

Actually, US hopes for China to solve the North Korean problem echo similar fond hopes Washington harbored 45 years ago when it wanted Beijing to use its influence with North Vietnam to end the war.

China refused, even though there was no love lost between Beijing and Hanoi.

Today, China again refuses to exercise its influence over another Communist neighbor, this time North Korea.

This is because China puts its own interests above those of the US, something that Trump, as an America Firster, surely should understand.

Now that it has Trump’s attention, China wants to be sure that it keeps it, knowing his notoriously short attention span.

That may well be why Xi invited Trump to visit China – certainly not an unusual invitation – but specified that it be within the next eight months.

Trump accepted with pleasure and said he hoped to go soon.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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