HONG KONG – Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s two-day summit meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, overshadowed by the U.S. 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 U.S. 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. U.S. Secretary of State 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 April 1, was headlined “Xi Jinping’s big diplomatic move draws global attention.” It discussed Xi’s state visit to Finland, followed by his tete-a-tete in Palm Springs with 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 U.S., for “stealing” American jobs and then announcing that he might depart from the “one-China” policy adopted by the United States 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.” Wilbur Ross, U.S. Commerce Secretary, hailed this as “the most significant thing” because trade discussions normally go on for years. The objective, Ross said, is to increase U.S. exports to China and reduce the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-China 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. Trump accepted this.
So the summit’s one concrete deliverable was a Chinese proposal accepted by the U.S. To China, the relationship with the U.S. is central, and Beijing needed to ensure its stable development given an unorthodox new U.S. administration. Of course, China’s success in maintaining the relationship doesn’t spell an American defeat.
Actually, U.S. 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 U.S., something that Trump, who advocated “America First,” 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.
Frank Ching is a veteran U.S. journalist who focuses on Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.
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