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The president is about to meet with the leader of China, one of America’s fiercest competitors and international rivals, but is he ready to face the dragon head on?
President Donald Trump will host Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago next week. Trump predicts the meeting will be “difficult,” but that may be an understatement. The new administration is still finding its footing and might be inadequately prepared for some of the challenges that lie ahead.
Next week’s meeting is “fraught with risk,” argue Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation, and Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center.
Trump has called the Chinese “the best negotiators in the world,” and while the president has an obvious talent for deals in the business world, he has a lot to learn about international diplomacy. An unsteady stance against a seasoned heavyweight like Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, could mean a knockout.
The administration has already stumbled in its dealings with China. During his recent tour of Asia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to offer China a diplomatic victory by acknowledging the four tenets of China’s “new model of major-country relations,” a geopolitical framework proposal for bilateral relationships between great powers. In his meetings with Chinese leadership, Tillerson expressed a commitment to a U.S.-China relationship built on the principles of “non-confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and … win-win solutions,” the four highly-ambiguous principles of Beijing’s proposal for a new relationship model.
The problem with China’s “new model of major-country relations” is that it demands respect for Chinese core interests, many of which are contested, and puts the U.S. and China on equal footing in Asia. Accepting the proposal may even put the U.S. on the losing side of the classic Thucydides trap in power politics. It sends a possibly undesirable message about American leadership to the world, enemies and allies alike.
Tillerson’s misstep is not the end of the world. After all, the Obama administration did the same thing early on before recognizing the need to walk back its previous statements. The first round of negotiations with China goes to Beijing, but only by a margin as Tillerson reportedly talked tough in his private discussions with Chinese leaders. Trump has been tagged in for round two, and this is his chance to show whether or not the administration has learned from its past mistakes.
China watchers are wary of the upcoming meeting.
“I think Xi Jinping is far better prepared than Trump, but Trump likely has a sense of what he would like to achieve,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), explained to The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“Trump is not prepared for a full-fledged summit and detailed negotiations, but he is ready for a short event where the focus is on developing some modicum of a personal relationship and laying out [America’s] general goals and concerns about the relationship,” Dr. Scott Kennedy, deputy director of the Freeman Chair in China Studies and director of the Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy at CSIS, told TheDCNF.
Trump has identified several areas where he has concerns — such as currency manipulation, trade, the militarization of disputed waters, and China’s hesitancy to pressure North Korea, but the administration has yet to formulate a clear policy position on China, leaving it particularly vulnerable in high-level negotiations.
“The administration has not yet given any indication that it has a China or Asia policy that it has settled on,” Dr. Michael Auslin, an Asian politics and security expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told TheDCNF. “In the absence of their own policy, by default it becomes easier to be responsive and acquiesce to what China wants, and that is the biggest pitfall.”
“The Chinese will have a set of issues, and if [Trump and his team] have not thought about what those might be and what their responses will be, then they could find themselves in a more responsive mode to the Chinese than in a mode where they are actually driving the conversation,” Auslin further explained.
While the administration has its reasons, the move to meet before the development of sound policy may have been a little premature. “In the ideal situation, the Trump administration would have waited to invite President Xi to the U.S. until more expertise is in place and more legwork can be done” in advance, Cheng and Lohman argued, but the meeting is set and backing out is not an option.
In addition to the “new model of major-country relations,” which experts argue the president should disavow, Trump should be on the lookout for pitfalls in other areas as well.
On North Korea, China could push the U.S. to accept a proposal advocating dialogue and a decrease in U.S.-South Korean defense cooperation in exchange for North Korean denuclearization. On trade, China may attempt to blunt U.S. criticisms of Chinese trade practices or, although less likely, introduce a new regional trade architecture in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As the previous administration argued, letting China unilaterally write the rules of the road on trade has the potential to put American interests at risk. China may also push for a U.S. policy that puts less emphasis on human rights, thus compromising U.S. promises to uphold its values internationally. Additionally, China could try to secure acceptance of the one China principle beyond Trump’s previous agreement to maintain the one China policy, potentially weakening U.S. security ties with Taiwan.
China may not state its interests outright; instead, Chinese ambitions may be hidden in “tweetable” packaged pledges that appear to advance the relationship between China and the U.S.
Experts argue that most importantly, Trump needs to be sure that he is placing American interests above the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, unlike the previous administration.
“If they get sucked into the trap of thinking that what we want is a good relationship with Xi Jinping, he will feel, rightly or wrongly, that it is going to be easier to manipulate these guys because what they’ve shown is that they are more interested in the soft power part of the relationship than the hard power that he is going to bring to it,” Auslin warns. “We need to recognized that the Chinese are very sophisticated at promoting and protecting their interests, and we need to do the same. That is what they are going to respect, and that’s what they are going to respond to.”
“We need very good relations with China … We need a workable relationship,” Auslin explains. “But, there has to be give and take.” Trump will need to ensure, as he promised on the campaign trail, that the taking is not one-sided or to America’s disadvantage.
“We’re going to get down to some very serious business,” Trump told reporters at the White House Friday, referring to the upcoming meeting with the Chinese president. “I would not be at all surprised if we did something that very dramatic,” the president told the Financial Times, adding that he has “great respect” for both Xi and China.
How Trump proceeds is anyone’s guess. He may be careful in word and deed, or he may throw caution to the wind.