Bottom Line Up Front
- On December 1, President Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Argentina.
- The meeting comes at a crucial time for the Sino-U.S. relationship, which has been continuously deteriorating throughout the Trump presidency.
- Both Xi and Trump are to blame for the current status of the most important major power relationship of the post-Cold War era.
- Due to conflicting approaches to foreign policy, a growing distrust in diplomacy and miscalculations on both ends, the future of Sino-U.S. relations seems dire.
The meeting that took place over the weekend between President Trump and President Xi, set against the backdrop of the G-20 in Argentina, presented both leaders with an opportunity to reframe deteriorating Sino-U.S. relations along a more positive trajectory. Early reports from the meeting suggest that the U.S. and China have called a ‘truce’ in the trade war, with Trump agreeing to temporarily suspend new tariffs while Xi agreed that China would seek to purchase more American products. The agreement notwithstanding, the future of Sino-U.S. relations still seem dire, which will have ripple effects throughout the international system. The relationship got off to a poor start from the beginning for Trump, when he took a phone call with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen and later tweeted a thank you to “the president of Taiwan.” For the People’s Republic of China and President Xi Jinping, the call was a humiliation and a signal that Sino-U.S. relations were about to take a turn for the worse. Since those early days, apart from a brief improvement in relations during Xi’s 2017 visit to Mar-a-Lago, Sino-U.S. relations have reached a nadir not seen since the 1999 bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade during NATO’s air campaign against Serbian paramilitary forces.
Even a cursory assessment of the current relationship reveals the following tensions: the ongoing “trade war,” heightened aggressions in the South China Sea, American concern over Chinese military modernization and recent revelations of the extent of China’s detention camps and harsh surveillance of its Uighur population (a Muslim minority population that lives in China’s most western Xinjiang province). Both Trump and Xi are to blame for the current status of Sino-U.S. bilateral relations. Trump’s lack of diplomatic finesse and understanding of the U.S. “One China” policy makes it hard for Xi to justify a good relationship with Trump—the former needs to save face with both the Chinese Communist party and his country’s domestic population. Trump’s peace-building efforts with North Korea also threatens China’s sphere of influence in East Asia. There is an increasing zero-sum approach to foreign policy in the Trump administration that does not sit well with Beijing. Such a mentality is viewed, perhaps accurately, as an American attempt to contain China’s rise. Xi, on the other hand, has solidified his political power domestically and signaled to the world that rather than becoming less authoritarian, China will remain a full-fledged dictatorship for the foreseeable future. In addition, it is no secret Beijing has never been fair on trade.
Despite being a member of the World Trade Organization, reports about corporate espionage, lack of respect for intellectual property and unjustifiable tariffs on foreign products are more commonplace than not. In addition, under Xi’s rule, Beijing has asserted a more aggressive foreign policy. Implementing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), building artificial islands in the South China Sea, establishing its first foreign military base in Djibouti and effectively siding with Russia, Iran, and Bashar Assad in the Syrian Civil War are but a few examples. Taken together, the combination of these factors makes it increasingly difficult to trust that China is not seeking to assume a dominating global role, although Xi continues to stress that China has no desire for world leadership, only to be respected within Asia and to be able to project power throughout China’s traditional sphere of influence. China’s growing role in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere belie these claims.
Trump is unlikely to abandon his zero-sum mentality and Xi will not make any major concessions, fearing that compromise will invite Washington to demand more, rather than diffusing tensions. The distrust of diplomacy that has taken root during the Trump administration invites both parties to make miscalculations. When it comes to great power politics, miscalculations have the potential to result in escalation dynamics that fuel conflict. The only two who can diffuse these tensions are Trump and Xi, but due to diametrically opposed worldviews, such an outcome is unlikely. The most important bilateral relationship of the post-Cold War era is thus likely to continue on its current downward trajectory. Although the issue of trade is important, it is merely one part of a more comprehensive and complex relationship encompassing a range of issues between Beijing and Washington. Solving the trade war will not diffuse tensions, which are deeply rooted in conflicting strategies and approaches to foreign policy.