The rehearsals are over. After months of rewriting a political drama for our time, the dialogue bristles. Backstage, the final call has been issued and the curtain is ready to go up.
In Buenos Aires on Saturday, the spotlight will fall on the eagerly awaited mini-summit between United States President Donald Trump and China’s head of state Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 gathering.
They will be surrounded by a cast of advisers and bit players in a move to thrash out a deal, and end the trade war which has dragged on for the past 10 months.
If Trump reverts to type and ad-libs his way through, we could be in for an intriguing and potentially explosive encounter.
So far, he has talked tough with a series of ultimatums that have left Beijing flat-footed at times. But Trump has also hinted that an agreement can be reached, despite threatening a new round of tariffs on Chinese imports, which currently run to goods and products worth US$250 billion.
“There’s a good possibility that we can make a deal, and he is open to it,” Larry Kudlow, the White House economic adviser, said earlier this week. “President Trump has indicated he’s open. Now we have to know if President Xi is open.”
At the heart of the US dispute with China are an array of issues, including intellectual property violations, technology theft, the ballooning trade deficit and even Xi’s state-backed economic model.
For his part, Xi has tried to address Washington’s concerns.
“China will make efforts to further open its door to the outside world,” he said during a state visit to Spain on Wednesday. “We will make efforts to speed up market access, improve the investment environment and increase protection of intellectual property.”
Yet Xi’s comments were strangely reminiscent of keynote speeches he made at the China International Import Expo in Shanghai more than three weeks ago and at the Boao Forum for Asia on Hainan island in April.
On all three occasions, the devil was in the lack of detail. In fact, you have to go back to August to understand Beijing’s timeline when it comes to pushing through its economic agenda.
During a routine media briefing, Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng made it crystal clear that China will “proceed at its own pace” when it comes to “reforms” and further “opening up” the economy.
Again, this was another example of what has been ironically dubbed “promise fatigue,” a major frustration for Team Trump.
Still, Bruno Wu, the executive vice-chairman and secretary general of the newly formed National Committee on China-US Relations, told Asia Times that he felt a compromise could be reached at the G20.
“I am cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the [Xi-Trump] summit as both sides are in need of resolving the [economic] dispute in principle, at the leadership level, and then move on concrete solutions,” he said from Beijing.
“President Xi said that there are 1,000 reasons to make China-US relations work but not a single reason to ruin it. I’m sure he meant it,” Wu, a media entrepreneur, continued.
“He also said that on an ocean there will be storms, but after the storm, the ocean will still be there. I believe he will approach the summit in that spirit and is determined to seek resolution and calmer waters,” he added.
Charting a course to “calmer waters” might be easier said than done with the master of the “Art of the Deal” at the helm of the US contingent.
Beijing, for example, was left bewildered by the lack of a response from Washington to a 142-point list of proposals, sent in the past few weeks. Kudlow responded by saying that once the document was translated into English, it contained very little that was new.
“Recent trends in the bilateral relationship do not provide cause for optimism,” Ryan Hass, of the John L Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, wrote. “The US-China relationship arguably is more strained now than at any point since the normalization of relations in 1979.
“In recent months, the relationship has accelerated along a continuum from rivalry toward adversarial antagonism,” he added.
Indeed, the consequences of the talks ending in deadlock would have a massive impact on the “global economy.”
Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund managing director, has warned of the dangers of rising tensions in a blog post.
“[The] global economy faces a critical juncture,” she said. “Rising trade barriers are ultimately self-defeating for all involved. Thus, it is imperative that all countries steer clear of new trade barriers while reversing recent tariffs.”
Yet getting back to the status quo by solving this impasse is unlikely, according to Julian Evans-Pritchard, the China economist at Capital Economics.
“I think the most likely scenario is that Xi Jinping doesn’t offer big enough concessions to Trump, and so nothing much comes of the G20 meeting,” he said.
If that happens, the curtain could come down on the Trump-Xi political production after the first act in Buenos Aires to scathing reviews.