No one seriously expected Donald Trump to stick to the dinner plans he made in 2015 when he suggested that China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, should be served a “double-size Big Mac” in lieu of a formal state dinner. But the substitution of dry-aged prime New York strip steak for a McDonald’s effectively symbolizes the contrast between Trump’s anti-China rhetoric and the apparently amicable outcome of his first meeting with Xi at the president’s “southern White House.” The summit last Thursday and Friday wasn’t in itself very eventful, but the tone of this “getting to know you” meeting leaves room for speculation.
After Friday’s talks, Trump commented on the two leaders’ “tremendous progress,” and “outstanding” relationship, while Xi offered similar platitudes about the development of “deeper understanding” and the building of trust. It is not altogether surprising that Trump has tempered his anti-China talk once in office, but there is a considerable distance between his earlier rants on China “raping” the US with its trade policy and the new cordial tone. Only a week before the summit, Trump was still insistent that the meeting with China would be “a very difficult one,” yet the summit seems to have gone smoothly (Aside from Trump’s slightly awkward joke that he was still getting “nothing” from Xi).
Did Trump’s team fail him?
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later claimed that the talks were “frank and candid,” and that Xi had agreed to increased cooperation over security issues in North Korea, but there was certainly no impression that Trump had been taking Xi to task over the trade deficit. The “100-day plan” announced by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross marks one of the more tangible outcomes of the summit, but the vague, amicable agreement is a far cry from Trump’s previously stated objectives on US-China trade policy. Instead, the plan represents a welcome “sea change in the pace of discussion,” with China participating due to its own desire to reduce its trade surplus and combat inflation.
In the run-up to the summit, some commentators worried that Trump’s team lacked the ability and experience of Xi’s well-briefed detail of US policy wonks. However, superior Chinese diplomacy is probably not wholly responsible for the civility and success of last week’s summit. Indeed, unless Xi was able to secure some guarantee that Trump would be on best behavior, the televised face-to-face is unlikely to have happened in the first place. So far, Trump has also refused to fulfill his campaign promise of branding China a currency manipulator, something he’d promised to do on Day 1. This all suggests that despite Trump’s apparently unpredictable, doctrine-less foreign policy, the China-US relationship is on a more stable, secure footing than many assume. To what extent this security is connected with the rising star of Jared Kushner (Trump’s son-in-law and linchpin in the White House’s busy back channel to Beijing), is perhaps an article for another time.
Who came out on top, Trump or Xi?
At least one commentator read Trump’s Thursday strike against Syria as a deliberately intimidating statement of strength directed at Xi, but while those connotations were doubtless understood by the administration, there is no reason to suggest that that strike was much more than a timely response to Assad’s chemical attack two days earlier. This rarer portrayal of Trump’s success is outweighed by the summit’s portrayal in China. In Chinese media, the photos used in reports about the summit mostly depict Xi in an authoritative position, guiding or lecturing the passive Trump. This narrative fits well with the image of Xi as an experienced statesman, and Trump as the new kid on the block. News in China about the meeting is overwhelmingly positive, with state media outlet Xinhua covering the summit (in Chinese) with pictures of the two men strolling together, discussing “amicable cooperation between the two countries.”
Although the summit didn’t generate much news and didn’t produce a clear winner or loser, Xi stands more to gain from its uneventfulness. While the apparent chemistry of the two leaders comes as a pleasant surprise to those in China fearing a tumultuous Sino-US relationship, Trump might have to reconcile his docility last week with a record of demanding a hard line on China. Trump’s amicable approach might be music to the ears of many previously anxious China-watchers, but his placid tweet that “time will tell on trade” could anger many voters who believe that the Chinese are to blame for their economic woes.