Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet US President Donald Trump for the first time on April 6 and 7 at the latter’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. On the agenda are a number of contentious issues that the two leaders are unlikely to resolve.
Trump has already noted that the meeting is going to be “very difficult”. The first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders will likely not be ideal for reaching consensus on issues such as trade, the North Korean nuclear crisis and the one-China policy.
Human rights and “one China”
Traditionally, the United States has paid much attention to human rights in China, such as its treatment of political dissidents and the arrest of civil rights lawyers. But Trump does not appear to put an emphasis on democracy and human rights in American foreign policy.
During the recent visit to the US by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Trump said their two countries didn’t agree on “a few things”, but he did not raise human rights. As US president, Barack Obama had not invited Sisi to the White House based on human rights concerns and even froze foreign aid to Egypt for two years after the previous president was overthrown in mid-2013.
The same may apply to China if Trump has a consistent policy.
China, on the other hand, is likely to seek continuing American recognition of the one-China policy, given Trump accepted a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen soon after his inauguration and before he had spoken to Xi.
In February, the two sides put out statements about their agreement on the policy but the US announcement noted that it had agreed to this at China’s request. Even though the US reaffirmed its commitment to the policy ahead of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to China in March, China can be expected to make sure that Trump understands the importance of the policy and that it’s not up for negotiation.
Another point of contention from Trump’s viewpoint is the American trade deficit with China and whether China has manipulated the exchange rate of its currency.
During his election campaign, Trump highlighted the US trade deficit with China as problematic, going so far as to say China was “raping” the American economy. And the US Trade Representative’s Office recently published a report criticising China’s over-production of aluminium and steel.
It’s important to note that Trump had expressed similar discontent with Japan. And that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe brought an economic package to Mar-a-Lago in February that promised more Japanese investment in the United States, which seemed to smooth over the issue.
China is unlikely to follow the same tactics to please Trump. Right before Xi’s departure, China’s Global Times, which is regarded as a mouthpiece of Beijing, commented that Sino-American trade should only be guided according to market incentives. And it said that the United States should make its cutting-edge technologies available to China so that it could solve the American trade deficit.
The North Korean nuclear crisis is also likely be high on the agenda. Ahead of the meeting, Trump told the Financial Times that the United States would work on its own if China was not willing to further pressure North Korea to give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
He did not explain whether he meant a military pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang. And when North Korea launched a test missile just a day ahead of the summit, the US said it had no further comment about the reclusive dictatorship.
China has repeatedly explained its leverage over North Korea has been exaggerated. And Beijing wants to see the denuclearisation of Korean Peninsula so that the United States, South Korea and Japan have no excuse to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system. It fears that the missile defence shield, which is already being deployed, could detect the launch of Chinese missiles and allow Washington to intercept these.
Unlike his father, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has never visited China. Without this relationship – and the recent deaths of North Korean allies – it’s difficult to assess what kind of influence China has over the North Korean leadership.
China has tightened sanctions on North Korea and put some investments there on hold. But the questions that remain are whether China can afford a failed state on its border and whether that will happen if China pushes too hard on Pyongyang.
A flood of North Korean refugees or a potential American presence in North Korea are both nightmare scenarios for Beijing.
Some of the above issues have been discussed before between Beijing and Washington. But Trump clearly has his own preferences, which Xi and Chinese diplomats are likely to know little about.
As this is the first face-to-face meeting between Trump and Xi, and the former is still likely working on his foreign policies, concrete agreements between them are unlikely.
On March 19, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi commented that the US-China summit was a platform to communicate and build trust as well as to put Sino-American relations back on the right track. It seems that Beijing regards the meeting as a warm-up exercise between the two leaders.
Bilateral trade and the North Korean nuclear crisis are likely to be the focus of the summit, while human rights and climate change may not be discussed extensively.
In regard to the latter issue, the two powers appear to be moving in diametrically opposed directions. The Trump administration has indicated that it will likely withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, while China’s pollution problems are making it take the issue seriously.
Trump’s lack of interest in human rights, multilateral trade and global environmental issues has significant implications for great power relations in future. It may mean that the United States may no longer be regarded as a world leader, leaving room for China to fill the power vacuum.
The US-China summit is not just a bilateral matter. Countries around the word are closely watching the interaction between a retreating great power and an emerging one.
Hak-yin Li, Lecturer in International Relations, Chinese University of Hong Kong