“The president needs to look strong and decisive, and China is a convenient whipping boy,” Quartz White House correspondent Heather Timmons wrote Friday.
Is President Donald Trump, to save a faltering presidency, planning to create friction with China when he meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mar-a-Lago today?
Trump will almost certainly create friction then, but perhaps not to save his presidency but because he understands his Administration needs to defend American interests from unprecedented challenges from Beijing.
Whatever the president’s motivation, Timmons’ provocative suggestion—that “the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century” is now being held hostage by partisan Washington politics—raises another crucial question: What are the internal considerations shaping Xi Jinping’s approach to the meeting?
In the People’s Republic of China, external relations, like other matters, have always been intensely political. That is especially so today. Xi, since becoming the Communist Party’s general secretary in November 2012, has been roiling politics, trying to change the country’s consensus-driven system to one of one-man rule.
Make that indefinite one-man rule. In recent years, the conventional wisdom is that Communist Party general secretaries stay on for only two five-year terms. Xi, many believe, apparently wants a third term.
To stay on, he needs to put his supporters on the Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-member body that essentially rules China. The committee will be reconstituted at the 19th Congress, which, if tradition prevails, will be held either in October or November. The party’s current rules require the replacement of five of the seven members of the committee.
Whether Xi succeeds in this quest to pack the ruling group may very well depend on his success in Mar-a-Lago.
Why? If he can show everyone in Beijing that he tamed Trump, he will be seen as deserving of an indefinite tenure at the top of the ruling organization.
Xi’s request was bold, and it is not entirely clear what motivated the move. Perhaps he wanted to capitalize on his victory in his initial test of will with Trump.
On Dec. 2, Trump took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, and soon afterward gave interviews, first to Fox News and then to the Wall Street Journal, saying he did not feel bound by America’s “One-China policy.” Beijing maintains that policy, now four decades old, is the basis of Sino-U.S. ties, and Xi, according to various accounts, refused to speak to Trump until he acknowledged he was bound by it.
Trump gave such an acknowledgement in a mid-February phone conversation between the two leaders, and the Chinese felt—with justification—that they had won the first round. Xi might have reasonably thought he had the upper hand and needed to press the advantage.
Moreover, Xi probably thinks he needed to raise contentious issues while he still held an advantage in preparation. Xi has been thinking about how to deal with a Trump presidency for about a year, at least judging from state media.
Trump, who talked about China incessantly during the campaign, does not appear to have thought about policy toward that country in rigorous terms. “China policy is Talmudic in its complexity and arcane language,” Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania told The Cipher Brief, “That Trump has mastered it is inconceivable.”
The New York Times reported Sunday that former American officials and China analysts believe that Beijing is better prepared than the Trump White House for this meeting.
As a practical matter, China policy is, as Waldron suggests, complex, covering a wide range of issues. Trump may be concerned most about, say, Beijing’s attitude toward North Korea, as he seemed to suggest in his comments to the Financial Times published Sunday, but he should also consider how China affects trade, Taiwan, Japan, and the broader region.
Although the Trump Administration has said it has completed its North Korea review, conducted by the able Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland, it is unlikely that the White House has been able to integrate that policy with other China matters.
Waldron is concerned that, in the absence of a comprehensive China policy, the new American leader may try to wing it in Mar-a-Lago. “I fear that Trump will, like FDR, hope so to charm his visitor that all problems vanish in the warmth,” he tells me. “Far more likely however is that the well-prepared Xi, who cares not a whit for friendships, will conjure perhaps serious and damaging concessions from an oblivious U.S. president.”
Many believe the Trump administration is particularly vulnerable to deals proposed by Xi, the master strategist, such as an utterly cynical arrangement whereby America abandons Taiwan or the South China Sea and China walks away from North Korea. Even if Trump were amenable to a bargain of this sort—and there is no hard evidence that he is—it is hard to see how the Chinese leader could keep his end of the bargain. He is beholden to hardline elements in Beijing for their political backing, and these elements, such as certain factions in the military, have consistently supported North Korea’s Kim family.
Even though relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have been strained from time to time—as they have been over the last couple of years—the Kims have always had the support of hardline elements in the Chinese capital. That certainly appears to be the case now. So whatever Xi may want to do, he cannot make meaningful concessions on North Korea—and maybe no concessions at all.
Xi needs to project strength at home to bolster his political base. Apart from some short-term deals on trade, he will come to Mar-a-Lago with no gifts for Trump. Other figures in Beijing will simply not tolerate accommodations to the United States.