‘America first’ meets ‘China first’

Ensuring President Xi does not lose face is a top priority for protocol-sensitive Chinese but such concerns are lost on Trump

 

Superficially it might appear they are cut from the same cloth. That they are natural soulmates. US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are both strong-man, instinctively authoritarian presidents, whose “Make America Great Again” and “Chinese Dream”respectively echo each other’s vaulting nationalist rhetoric.

But when they meet for the first time at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on Thursday and Friday, aides fear that, as the US president put it in one of his recent embarrassingly candid tweets, it will be a “very difficult” meeting. Xi, now a champion of economic globalisation and of collective action against global warming, faces a novice, belligerent, unpredictable host who was elected in no small part by playing up anti-China protectionism and who appears determined to tear up climate accords. There has been none of the praise lavished on Vladimir Putin directed Xi’s way.

It’s a get-to-know-you meeting, not expected to produce tangible policy breakthroughs, but the mood music will be read closely

Trump has many times declared that Chinese trade practices are killing US jobs. He has said he wants US companies to stop investing in China and instead create jobs at home, and has also accused it of manipulating its currency to boost exports.

Chinese president Xi Jinping: crackdown on corruption. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Chinese president Xi Jinping. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Both sides are keeping expectations low. It’s a get-to-know-you meeting, not expected to produce tangible policy breakthroughs, but the mood music will be read closely. For the protocol-sensitive Chinese “ensuring President Xi does not lose face is a top priority”, one Chinese official told Reuters. But, as we know only too well, such concerns are lost on Trump.

If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will

Typically the US president has upped the ante ahead of the meeting on the critical issue of curbing North Korea’s nuclear missile programme – the latter is believed by observers to be soon capable of reaching the US with its missiles.

And last year alone, Kim Jong-un carried out more ballistic missile tests than his father did in almost two decades of rule. A sabre-rattling Trump warned in an interview with the Financial Times that “China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t. ... If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.”

"Potential Chinese willingness to help US president Donald Trump with Pyongyang is almost inconceivable without significant US concessions on the economic front."

What he means is also typically unclear – a preemptive attack would be hugely dangerous, and options for further unilateral sanctions are limited – and secretary of state Rex Tillerson has added to allies’ concern by warning that military options are not off the table.

Beijing has been reluctant to assist in bringing down Kim Jong-un

But Trump is right that China’s help is critical.

Beijing has been reluctant, however, to assist in bringing down Kim Jong-un, fearing that an imploding North Korean regime could mean many thousands of starving refugees fleeing over its border. And the even-worse possibility of US troops in large numbers on its border is still more nightmarish.

Moreover, potential Chinese willingness to help Trump with Pyongyang is almost inconceivable without significant US concessions on the economic front – the question allies ask is whether the “great dealmaker” Trump is even capable of beginning to conceive of such a bargain.

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