Traveling with the US President on his first official visit to Beijing, you will not find the trade warriors, such as Peter Navarro, who have been benched for this match between Xi and Trump. Instead Trump is heading to Beijing with the Defense Secretary James Mattis’ and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s people, prepared to talk about the North Korea impasse.
On the commercial side, the contentious structural issues of the trade relationship are likely going to be avoided this time around, with tech and finance companies largely sitting this trip out. The business delegation, headed by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, will be made up in large part by US energy and commodity firms. These are the entities China is eager to do business with – Beijing would be happy if they US economy started to resemble that of Brazil.
As Politico writes this week, despite the importance of the bilateral relationship, Trump’s stopover in Beijing is in many ways the least important visit of this trip. Without comprehensive strategy for dealing with a newly invigorated Xi Jinping administration, Trump’s best hope is to not give Xi too many things to brag about coming out of the trip.
Far more important will be efforts to shore up relationships with other regional allies. An emphasis on “America First,” for instance by emphasizing the renegotiation of the US-South Korea trade deal, would only serve to further push US allies into the embrace of a China that is increasingly replacing US influence in the region. Trump would be better served placing an emphasis on the US’ rebranded pivot to Asia as a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
After consolidating his power at China’s recent Party Congress, Xi Jinping has much less to worry about. He can use carefully orchestrated photo ops with Trump, as well as any fawning over Xi that Trump seems so eager engage in, to show America’s weakness. Considering the lack of options Trump has to pressure China on trade, or even North Korea, the optics of Trump’s visit to Beijing may be as important to his success as anything else.
Specifically, Trump might try to avoid slumping while getting a history lesson from uncle Xi when he meets with him this time. This photo from Xi’s visit to Mar-a-Lago was one of Chinese state media’s favorites: