The first meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, went well. There were no obvious gaffes, no discernible moments of tension and no apparent conflicts between the two leaders. Given the expectations that surrounded the meeting, that is a positive outcome. Unfortunately, however, there were also no real deliverables from the summit. So, to the extent that the two men established a positive working relationship, the meeting should be judged a success. That alone says a great deal about the new normal for U.S. foreign policy.
Going into last week’s meeting at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s “Winter White House” in Palm Beach, Florida, the U.S. president had warned that talks would be difficult. Given his statements about China as a candidate, in particular comments about how it had “raped” the United States in economic relations, there were fears that tough talk would poison bilateral relations and could trigger a trade war if actions followed. The belief in Washington that China could do more to influence North Korea also threatened to undermine the two countries’ attempts to tackle shared global concerns.
Yet, when the meeting concluded, the worst outcomes were avoided. Officials from both countries characterized the meetings as positive, with Trump calling the two-day summit “tremendous,” and noting that “goodwill and friendship was formed.” China’s Xinhua news agency reported that the two leaders “held extensive, friendly and long talks,” with both sides praising gains in bilateral relations and agreeing to further relations to benefit the two peoples. The Chinese press devoted considerable attention to Trump’s acceptance of an invitation to visit China in the future.
Substantively, little was produced. No joint statement or declaration was released at the end of the meeting. The two leaders did agree on a new U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue that they will oversee and will consist of four pillars: diplomatic and security dialogue; comprehensive economic dialogue; law enforcement and cybersecurity dialogue; and social and cultural issues dialogue. The new framework looks suspiciously like the previous Strategic and Economic Dialogue, with some other existing elements included.
In keeping with Trump’s demand to level the playing field and create a new, more equal economic relationship, the most important component of the new dialogue will be the economic pillar. The first meeting was held during the summit and it focused on developing a list of “very specific action items” for the two governments to work on between now and the next round. U.S. officials emphasized not only the content of these discussions but also their speed: Central to the new dialogue is a 100-day action plan for trade, which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross called “a very big sea change in the pace of discussions. … That’s a very, very important symbolization of the growing rapport between the two countries.”
While the particulars of those discussions remain a work in progress — even the “way stations of accomplishment” that will be used to benchmark developments are unspecified — observers expect Chinese concessions on beef imports from the U.S. (banned since 2003) and liberalization of foreign investment in the financial sector (foreigners cannot hold majority stakes in Chinese securities and insurance companies). The latter was under discussion during the Obama administration as part of the bilateral investment treaty and was rumored to have been six months away if talks had continued. Additional moves to open the Chinese automobile market to foreign cars, in particular by reducing the current 25 percent tariff on imports, are also likely.
If economic talks lacked fireworks, geopolitical issues did not. North Korea was expected to dominate security discussions but those talks took on a new perspective when Trump authorized cruise missile strikes against Syria as the summit opened. Both leaders agreed on the urgency of the threat of North Korean weapons programs and their long-standing goal of ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons, but U.S. officials noted that “there was no kind of a package arrangement discussed to resolve this.” The missile attacks were intended to signal to Damascus, Pyongyang and Beijing that U.S. patience is running thin and that the impunity rogue governments enjoyed in the past is over. The dispatch of the U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and its task force to waters near the Korean Peninsula no doubt reinforces that message and the Trump administration’s resolve.
In keeping with China’s determination to make the summit a success, Xi was reported to have expressed “understanding” of the attacks because it was retaliation for a chemical attack that killed children. Later, however, Chinese officials offered a different assessment: A Foreign Ministry spokesperson noted that Beijing always believes “that the Syrian issue should be resolved through political means.” Similarly, Xinhua did not mention North Korea in its account of the meeting.
It is unlikely that candidate Trump would have been satisfied by the results of this meeting. He would likely have dismissed it as yet another round of empty discussions, with China fending off U.S. demands for more equality. He would have also noted that Xi did not even offer the usual bag of goodies for a summit in the form of investment deals or big purchases. Yet for this administration, the absence of a calamity is considered a cause for celebration.