Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping are meeting in Mar-a-Lago today and tomorrow. Expectations for the summit are humble: simply to get through their 24 hours together without a hitch, avoiding an offensive tweet or an awkward photo op. This might seem like a low bar. Given Trump’s campaign rhetoric on China, however, an uneventful summit, even one without any clear outcomes, would certainly be a win-win by many measures.
Conventional wisdom suggests that this first meeting between the leaders of the two most powerful nations in the world is largely a vehicle for them to size each other up, to assess each other’s priorities and redlines in private, rather than to make big announcements. Trump and Xi will have at least two other opportunities to meet in person later this year – at the September G-20 meeting in Germany and in November at APEC in Vietnam – giving them, particularly Mr. Trump, time to more carefully develop their approaches. Many China-related jobs remain unfilled in the Trump administration and there are widely divergent views on China amongst many of his senior staff. With no clear strategy for U.S.-China relations, punting to the fall may make good sense.
If that happens, it would be a good thing. On security issues, moving too fast could lead to miscommunication, which could in turn trigger dangerous miscalculation. For now, we should be content with an anodyne joint statement with Washington and Beijing both pledging to continue to work together to deescalate tensions in the South China Sea and deter North Korean nuclearization.
But for many in the U.S. business community, a summit without meaningful deliverables on the economic front would be considered a failure. American companies in key sectors are facing intractable market access barriers, and are demanding in an unprecedented way that the U.S. government take a stand.
The call by the U.S. business community, broadly defined, for tough action represents a sea change its approach to the U.S. government. In the past, American corporations would urge Washington not to rock the boat publicly, for fear China would retaliate against their operations in China. That is no longer the case. Today, “smooth relations” is out. “Reciprocity” is in.
For a president who campaigned on a jobs agenda and frequently blamed China for stealing U.S. jobs – an issue that resonated with his base voters ― keeping mum on bilateral trade and investment issues in his first official meeting with Xi seems like an exercise in extreme willpower. Of course, election year rhetoric is just that - rhetoric – and few China watchers ever expect tough talk on the campaign trail to turn into actual policy. But just a few days ago, Mr. Trump was still echoing this sentiment, saying via Twitter that the “meeting…with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses. American companies must be prepared to look elsewhere.” With the U.S. companies putting the pressure on the Trump administration, he may feel obligated to do or say something. It won’t be a 45 percent import tax, but it could be something that hurts rather than furthers U.S. goals in the relationship.
Add to Mr. Trump’s renowned unpredictability the fact that relatively little preparation is being done to prepare the president for his meeting with Xi. Compared to past presidents with fully-staffed State (and other) Departments and certainly compared to how prepared President Xi, with decades of government experience, will be, President Trump went into the Mar-a-Lago summit almost winging it.
It is possible, even likely, that both sides will come to the summit prepared to offer minor concessions as face-saving measures, small gestures of goodwill. Both need to project strength to their respective constituencies. Less than 100 days into his presidency, Mr. Trump has had few meaningful successes and some high-profile defeats, and cannot afford to come across as weak on China. Five years into his tenure and in the midst of overseeing significant leadership change that could either consolidate or undermine his power, Mr. Xi can likewise not go back to Beijing empty-handed.
If Mr. Trump remains disciplined, look for a summit that happens without mishaps but also without breakthroughs. It will most likely be a meeting higher on atmospherics than substance. That should be considered a win; the tough issues will be more effectively managed once the Trump administration has senior officials and a strategy in place.