Understanding President Trump’s First Visit to China

With Charlie Woo

President Donald Trump’s upcoming visit to China to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping comes at an opportune moment in the U.S.-China relationship. Seeking to put his own stamp on U.S. foreign policy, he will face a Chinese president who has gained tremendous stature from China’s recent 19th Party Congress. All this at a time when 92% of the Chinese public (up from 74% in 2012) thinks that China is headed on the right track, according to a recent 2017 Committee of 100 U.S.-China Public Perceptions Opinion Survey.

The Committee of 100, a non-partisan organization of prominent Chinese Americans with a mission to foster constructive relations between the peoples of the U.S. and China, has been conducting surveys since 1994 that measure the attitudes of Americans and Chinese towards each other, and on issues such as economics, geopolitics, and culture. The recent survey findings not only provide a context to understanding the upcoming visit but can help guide policy.

When a President who thrives on deal-making sits down with a President who is empowered more than ever to deal and deliver on his promises, this is a perfect occasion for both to negotiate some concrete outcomes that will benefit each country.

To be sure, survey data shows real fears and concerns Americans and Chinese harbor about each other. Americans perceive China’s emerging military power and global economic power as threats. In addition, the trade deficit, loss of jobs to China, cybersecurity and industrial espionage are the top concerns for Americans. The Chinese are most concerned about the U.S. military presence in Asia and the U.S.’s perceived intention to contain China.

None of these military, geopolitical, and security concerns are going to be resolved overnight, and will require continuous good faith dialogue. But if left unaddressed, these concerns will only breed even more distrust. Already in 2017, 80% of Chinese, up from 56% in 2012, think China should not trust the U.S., a point potentially tied to increasing Chinese perceptions that the U.S. is trying to contain China (61% of Chinese believe the U.S. is trying to prevent China from becoming a great power, up from 52% in 2012 and 45% in 2007).

In contrast, around two thirds of Americans have consistently seen themselves as accepting China’s rise and wanting a collaborative relationship. This disconnect highlights an area that needs to be addressed. In working through issues of conflict, it is important for both sides to acknowledge concerns on each side, minimize misinterpretations of the other’s intention, treat each other with respect, and articulate shared goals.

At the same time, the U.S. and China do have converging interests they can build upon. Survey findings show that Americans and Chinese actually agree about the top three areas in which both countries would benefit from working together: trade, global financial stability, and the environment. Respondents in both countries also see the need to collaborate in reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The topic of bi-lateral trade has the greatest potential for immediate cooperation and mutually beneficial outcomes. Although Americans are highly concerned about the U.S.-China trade deficit, over 80% of both Americans and Chinese agree that trade with the other country is beneficial to their own country’s economy. Data also shows that business leaders, policy experts and journalists in both countries cite working out trade agreements as a key way to improve trust.

Another way to improve mutual sentiments is through increased cultural and educational exchanges. Survey data shows that being exposed to the art and culture of the other country has an overwhelmingly positive effect, generally producing a more favorable impression of that country. Visitations and study abroad were also well regarded.

Both Presidents Xi and Trump have a high stake in ensuring a positive outcome to their meeting. Public opinion indicates that jobs and the economy are the primary domestic concern in both countries. This upcoming meeting provides the perfect opportunity for both leaders to address their number one domestic issue by coming up with concrete trade and investment agreements that would benefit both countries. Both Trump and Xi are said to have a strong personal relationship. President Trump also appears to enjoy some goodwill from the Chinese people (32% of the Chinese public thinks that the U.S.-China relationship will improve under Trump’s leadership, while 23% thinks it will get worse). The two leaders should leverage their relationship and make the most of this moment in history to advance the prosperity of their countries.

Charlie Woo, a fellow member of the Committee of 100, is CEO of Megatoys in Los Angeles. A leading businessperson, he is credited with creating the Los Angeles “Toy District” for light manufacturing.

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