For US and China, a new beginning on a rocky road

In Photo: In this April 7 file photo, US President Donald J. Trump ( left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk together at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. The US is piling the pressure on Beijing to use its clout with North Korea to rein in its nuclear and missile programs. China is the North’s most important trading partner and ally, but Pyongyang has ignored Beijing’s calls for a suspension of those programs and its requests for high-level bilateral talks.

By Robert A. Manning | New York Times News Service

President Xi Jinping of China came to the United States bearing no gifts. No grand bargains were reached in his meeting with President Donald J. Trump, but there were no visible signs of acrimony. Few concrete achievements were expected after the White House sought to lower expectations in pre-summit briefings, emphasizing that the first meeting between Trump and Xi would be about “getting to know each other”.

Despite being overshadowed by US cruise-missile strikes in Syria, however, the meeting still may stand out as an important first step in redefining and stabilizing the troubled relationship between the two global giants.

Establishing a good rapport between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies and largest militaries is still useful. For Xi, merely being invited to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, where Trump recently met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, a major US ally, was something of a gift: Chinese media could portray Xi as an equal with Trump, and the Chinese leader got a boost to his stature and popularity at home.

That may help explain how Xi absorbed the shock of Trump’s Syrian bombing, refraining from criticism of his host and saying only that something should be done “when people are killing children.”

In describing the summit, Xi euphemistically explained, “We recently have had in-depth and lengthy communications … and arrived at many common understandings, the most important being deepening our friendship and building a kind of trust in keeping with the Sino-US working relationship and friendship.”

Trump echoed those sentiments in a tweet, saying that “goodwill and friendship” had been formed.

Before the summit, Xi had indicated to Trump advisers that he was interested in a reset of US-China relations, which numerous Chinese officials had described as dangerously strained. In the run-up to the summit, Trump’s bluster evaporated. Gone were threats to cite China as a “currency manipulator”—when, in fact, China has spent $1 trillion during the past two years to prop up the renminbi. Also gone was a threat to slap 45 percent tariffs on Chinese goods.

After a major White House policy battle, “realists” such as Gary Cohn, chairman of the National Economic Council, had persuaded Trump that radical steps proposed by such economic nationalists as advisers Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro risked disrupting the global economy.

Ironically Trump’s “America First” policies are enabling Xi to realize his “China Dream”, playing the role of champion of globalization. Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership gives China a free hand to shape the Asia-Pacific trade architecture. Trump’s rejection of climate change leaves China free to posture as a world leader in this area. Trump’s proposed budget cuts in US contributions to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank, foreign aid and the United Nations also allow China to expand its influence in post-World War II institutions that the US created.

“America First” is a doubleedged sword for China, however, with the flip side being US nationalism. Trump aside, the bipartisan consensus that guided US policy toward China, dating from the Nixon opening in 1972, increasingly has dissipated since about 2010, as Beijing has become more assertive economically and militarily.

American hopes that China, by developing a middle class and integrating itself into the global economic and political system, would become a more normative actor and move toward political reform have faded. The relationship between the two giants, always part cooperative and part competitive, has begun to tilt toward the latter.

Under President Barack Obama the hard edges were softened by the complexities of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an annual bureaucratic ritual, and by high-profile cooperation on climate change and other global issues. The issue of climate change did not even arise during the Xi-Trump meetings, however.

Though Trump’s Asia team is not yet in place—only 36 of some 400 senior political appointees have even been nominated—he has scrapped the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and created a new “comprehensive dialogue” with smaller pieces: security and diplomacy, economics and trade, cyber security and law, and social exchanges. It’s too soon to say whether this new framework is merely moving chairs around or if it will result in a more focused, prioritized dialogue. Judging from US expectations for China on North Korea and trade issues, however, there are sure to be speed bumps ahead.

One concrete result of the summit is a 100-day plan to address trade issues, with a focus on America’s $347-billion trade deficit with China. In coming days Trump is expected to hit China with anti-dumping tariffs on steel. To forestall unilateral US actions, Beijing reportedly is offering to end a ban on US beef exports, to open its market to more US agricultural products and to allow majority-US investment in its finance and security sectors. This could pave the way to concluding a stalled Bilateral Investment Treaty. Reducing tariffs on American automobiles also may be part of the plan.

Such moves would deflect immediate tensions, but the core problem is how to curtail China’s predatory, mercantilist industrial policies that discriminate against US companies and hobble China’s stalled market reforms. Trade tensions are likely to persist unless Xi is willing to dismantle China’s statist policies, to implement the market reforms to which he claims to be committed and to base the bilateral economic relationship on reciprocity.

North Korea, a source of either cooperation or confrontation, has moved to the top of the US-China agenda. Xi conceded that the nuclear problem is reaching “a serious stage”, and the two leaders made vague pledges of more cooperation.

Trump has threatened that, if China doesn’t help “solve” the North Korea problem, the United States will do so alone. US officials are using tough language: North Korea “must be stopped”, Defense Secretary James Mattis said, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted at preemptive action if Pyongyang’s weapons program reached “an unacceptable level”.

North Korea’s firing of another test missile, only a day before the summit, was a sobering reminder that its missile and nuclear capabilities exist precisely to deter and respond to such threats. A US policy review has explored a spectrum of options ranging from preemptive military strikes and regime change to continuing Obama’s “strategic patience”. The unacceptable risks of a military response that could spark a war are one reason that 25 years of diplomacy has not solved the vexing problem.

Clearly the summit provided more questions than answers about the future of Sino-American relations. The world’s most important bilateral relationship almost certainly will continue to be part cooperative and part competitive, and it’s too soon to know whether the Trump-Xi summit can provide momentum to tilt the relationship back toward the former.

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Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council.

Image Credits: AP Photo/Alex Brandon