April 10, 2017 8:00 pm JST
Minxin Pei

Syria takes shine off Trump-Xi summit

The mood was brighter than many were expecting, but the outcome underwhelmed

Chinese and American leaders have held many summits since U.S. President Richard Nixon landed in Beijing in February 1972. Most of these summits produced results that improved or stabilized bilateral relations.

The just-concluded talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, was a decidedly mixed affair despite the high stakes involved. On the positive side, both did their best to appear friendly. But the meeting produced no specific agreements on a host of contentious issues between the two countries.

On the eve of the summit, held April 6-7 at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's Florida resort, America's tweeter-in-chief warned that his meeting with Xi would be "very difficult" because of the country's "massive trade deficits" with China. While it is impossible to know why Trump decided to signal the likely failure of arguably his most important summit since taking office, Trump's tweet inevitably cast a dark shadow over the event.

Troubling dynamics

Even before Trump's hint of potential trouble ahead, the underlying dynamics in U.S.-China relations were worrisome. Trump has never been shy about singling out China for its assorted "sins," such as calling climate change a "hoax" concocted by China, and blaming Beijing for currency manipulation to maintain unfair trade advantages and causing America's manufacturing decline. He even raised the frightening prospect of ending Washington's long-held "One China" policy, a stance he later abandoned by affirming this policy in a call with Xi in early February.

In addition to Trump's grievances about Chinese behavior, his transactional diplomatic style could also hurt the chances of building on the positive aspects emerging from the summit. From Trump's perspective, diplomacy is like conducting a series of business transactions. In the case of China, for instance, he might be tempted to make concessions on some issues in exchange for better terms from Beijing on others. Such a style may be effective in making property deals, but it is questionable when applied to diplomacy.

In dealing with China, Trump is not only hampered by his lack of knowledge of the complexity and interconnectedness of many issues, but also by his encounters with a totally different type of diplomatic philosophy.

Unlike Trump, Xi's top priority was -- and undoubtedly remains -- agreeing on general principles governing U.S.-China relations, instead of bargaining over the terms of individual agreements. In the past, Chinese leaders have been masters in trying to tie Washington's hands by using their own interpretations of mutually agreed principles to constrain American behavior and policy. It is likely that Xi will persist in trying to persuade Trump to agree that the U.S. and China should strive to establish a "new type of great power relations." It is equally likely that Trump will treat Xi's formulation as mere Chinese diplomatic rhetoric undeserving of a positive response.

Easy wins

Mercifully, Trump and Xi worked hard to accentuate the positive at the summit even though they reached no substantive agreements on trade or North Korea.

On trade, Xi was obviously well aware of Trump's eagerness to score a quick win and show off his self-proclaimed talent as a deal-maker. So Beijing offered two relatively easy concessions to Washington: China will allow American financial companies to open majority-owned subsidiaries in China, and let Chinese companies resume imports of American beef. However, the real tough bargaining over trade has yet to take place. Xi and Trump have agreed on a 100-day plan to find ways to resolve the trade tensions.

The 100-day plan, about which no details have been released, may have bought Trump and Xi some time, but we should not hold our breath that this process will do much to reduce what Trump calls a "massive trade deficit" with China. Since bilateral trade is determined by the structural features of the U.S. and Chinese economies, such as investment and consumption patterns, the U.S. will continue to run large deficits with China as long as Americans consume more than they produce and the Chinese do the opposite.

Nevertheless, as indicated by the two minor concessions offered by Xi during the summit, China will likely agree to buy more U.S. goods to soothe Trump's ego and allow him to declare victory. But it is inconceivable that Xi would agree to the kind of protectionist measures proposed by Trump that would effectively hobble China's economic development.

Before their meeting, there was little optimism that Trump and Xi would agree to cooperate in curbing the threat of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. China and the U.S. have fundamental differences over North Korea -- as evidenced by Trump's assertion in a recent interview with the Financial Times that he was prepared to take unilateral action to eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat.

For the U.S., Pyongyang's capacity to strike the U.S. homeland with nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles would be totally intolerable. For China, such capabilities are at most a nuisance and do not constitute a threat to its own security.

For Washington, the only way to force Pyongyang to suspend and eventually abandon its nuclear and missile programs is by imposing punishing sanctions, most of which need to be carried out by China. As Trump told the FT: "China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won't."

For Beijing, punitive measures that could result in a regime collapse in Pyongyang would be unacceptable because that would create a far worse situation -- the near-certain reunification of the two Koreas and the consequent loss of China's security buffer against the U.S.

Such fundamental differences apparently made it impossible for a breakthrough on North Korea at the summit. Notably, there was no announcement of China's commitment to specific steps aimed at reining in North Korea. Indeed, in the Chinese official media coverage of the summit, the North Korea issue is barely mentioned.

To the extent that Pyongyang became a news item during the summit, it was only because of the U.S. cruise missile attack on Syria, ordered by Trump on April 6. Although Trump informed his guest of the strike during their dinner that evening, the attack was unfortunately seen as a subtle message to China: Trump is willing to take unilateral military action against Kim Jong Un if North Korea continues down its nuclear path.

Loss of face

There is little doubt that the Syria strike rankled Xi and his delegation even though they politely said nothing in public. In terms of protocol, launching a military strike while hosting an honored guest clearly goes against established diplomatic conventions. For Xi, such an act amounts to not giving him face (showing enough respect). Indeed, the media frenzy in the wake of the attack took all the attention away from the summit. As far as the pageantry of summits is concerned, the Mar-a-Lago summit ended with a whimper -- or the wrong sort of bang.

Perhaps aware that his action against Syria disrupted an otherwise well-orchestrated summit, Trump attempted to put the best spin on his meeting with Xi. He claimed to have made "tremendous progress in our relationship with China" and called the U.S.-China relationship he has developed with Xi "outstanding." He even predicted that "lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away."

Given the multitude of unbridgeable differences between the U.S. and China on trade, North Korea and the South China Sea, Trump is setting himself up for a potentially major stumble on China. If his negotiators fail to achieve real progress with China on these issues in the coming months, these "bad problems" will return to haunt him in a big way.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.

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