North Korea and bilateral trade ties are among the subjects likely to dominate discussions between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump when they meet for the first time this week. Here, Alex Neill examines what the summit could mean for the world’s most important bilateral relationship.

China and US flags

By Alex Neill, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

On the face of it, the meeting between presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump to be held over the next two days at Trump’s Florida retreat, Mar-a-Lago, might seem awkward: the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, China’s ‘core leader’, will hash out a blueprint for Sino-US relations with an American tycoon in his opulent golf resort.

Golf diplomacy has been a dubious proposition since Xi banned the pursuit of the game for Party officials a few years ago; he is a soccer man in any case. The Chinese delegation may also wish to distance themselves from the affinity for golf that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shares with Trump, evident at their own Mar-a-Lago summit in February this year.

Nevertheless, Xi and Trump do have some similar traits. Both have amassed power and reconfigured political leadership in their respective countries in ways that have not been seen for decades, and many have compared Xi’s ‘China Dream’ with Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra.

At the Obama–Xi summit at the Sunnylands ranch in June 2013, Xi characterised his country’s interactions with the US as a ‘new model of great power relations’. For China, this was a watershed moment in the bilateral relationship aimed at the Chinese population and the international audience in equal measure. It was a statement of Xi’s conviction that China deserved new recognition as the world’s second-largest economy with an ever-expanding geopolitical footprint. It is likely that Xi will repeat and even refine this line at Mar-a-Lago.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, seems less preoccupied with China’s perceptions of its own standing in the world vis-à-vis the US. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to channel China’s own stock phrases in describing the bilateral relationship on his recent visit to Beijing. This appeared to be mainly a matter of rhetorical ineptutude and policy ignorance, but these very qualities also reflect Trump’s prioritisation of substance rather than form in the US relationship with China.

In contrast to Tillerson, Trump is expected to come down hard on Xi over Chinese ambivalence towards North Korean sabre-rattling. Xi is unlikely to offer much more help in reining in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes because of the US deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or ‘THAAD’ radar in South Korea. Beijing believes that this system undermines its own nuclear deterrent by extending US monitoring capabilities well into Chinese territory.

Trump will also likely express his dismay at the yawning US trade deficit and the corrosion of America’s labour force. Xi will stress the interdependency of the US and Chinese economies, as well as the potential economic risks of any move by Trump to impose heavier tariffs on Chinese imports.

Despite these sticking points, Xi will need to leave Florida reassured that the world’s most important bilateral relationship is on track, especially as the Party prepares for its 19th Congress – its quinquennial leadership conclave – this autumn in Beijing.

Trump will also be on the lookout for opportunities to do business with China perhaps under the auspices of its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. Both Xi and Trump have allegedly opened a parallel diplomatic channel using Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner that focuses on opportunities for cooperation, apparently facilitated by Henry Kissinger, the architect of shuttle diplomacy between Washington and Beijing.

The Chinese strategic community is currently obsessed with the ramifications for its country of what they describe as Trump’s neo-isolationism, US strategic contraction and unilateralism. Yet many Chinese experts believe that the US strategic focus on the Asia-Pacific is not going to change fundamentally given its ongoing primacy in the form of its Asian alliance network. In the end, at Mar-a-Lago, Xi and Trump are likely to settle on a relationship that is both cooperative and competitive.

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