Mar-a-Lago summit: What can be achieved?

By Jonathan D. Pollack Published: 2017/4/6 23:54:25

The first face-to-face meeting between President Trump and President Xi Jinping will take place in Mar-a-Lago, Florida on April 6 and 7. Some American commentators argue that the meeting is premature and therefore overly risky. They argue that the Trump administration has yet to announce any sub-Cabinet level appointments in foreign policy and national security, leaving American officials ill prepared for the discussions.  Xi and Trump have concluded otherwise. Recent upheavals in international politics and economics and widespread challenges to global order have seldom seemed greater, convincing both leaders to meet sooner rather than later.   

Perhaps more important, the two presidents want to take the measure of one another. President Trump undoubtedly prefers one on one dealings with important leaders, and exhibits clear distaste for multilateral negotiations.  He believes personal connections to individual counterparts (either in business or in relations with other countries) is a better way to pursue key objectives.  China above all seeks predictability in bilateral ties, and it wants a connection to the US president or to someone very close to him.   The meetings at Mar-a-Lago will test whether both leaders are able to accomplish what they seek.

During the presidential campaign Chinese public opinion favored Trump over Hillary Clinton. Many in China seemed persuaded that Trump's business background and his disregard for the status quo made him the preferred candidate. But the statements of Trump and some of his closest advisers, especially on economics and trade but extending to national security, portended major upheaval in bilateral relations. Trump's actions as President-elect, including his statement that the US should revisit the One China policy to compel major Chinese concessions on trade issues, provoked sharply negative reactions in Beijing, though China wisely did not draw worst case conclusions from Trump's tweets.

Since President Trump's inauguration in January, both leaderships have sought to prevent major damage to bilateral relations. In a phone conversation with Xi, Trump stated that there would be no change in the US One China policy, and Secretary of State Tillerson's visit to Beijing affirmed the administration's desire to deepen cooperation with China, employing language very much favored by Beijing. President Xi will be only the second national leader that President Trump has hosted at Mar-a-Lago, following Japanese Prime Minister Abe.

However, the two leaders need to candidly address the larger issues that divide the US and China, and to determine whether reasonable understandings and a road map for future relations are achievable. The Trump administration's grievance list focuses on numerous areas, but three in particular stand out:  trade and economics; China's policies toward North Korea; and Chinese conduct in the maritime domain, including its longer-term strategic goals. The discussions in Mar-a-Lago seem likely to focus on the first two issues. 

Trump's most explicit and severe criticisms of China concern Chinese economic practices.  The President and some of his closest advisors continue to espouse economic nationalism, and are insistent that the United States is no longer prepared to tolerate highly imbalanced trade ties. They claim that China has long engaged in predatory trade practices that have undermined US companies, led to major job losses for American workers, and contributed directly to major trade imbalances that favor China.  These arguments are all linked to the Trump's belief that globalization (including China's entry into the World Trade Organization) has greatly disadvantaged the United States.

Xi repeatedly defends globalization as a process that benefits all nations, and that China remains committed to an open and equitable trading system. He has also pledged to open Chinese economy to increased foreign investment while China simultaneously deepens its investment profile in the advanced industrial economies. But many foreign firms (including major US multinationals) express growing frustrations about their impeded access to protected sectors of the Chinese economy, and believe that China's commitments ring hollow.

Xi Jinping does not want to see major pressures on US-China trade, which exceeded $500 billion in 2016. A push to accelerate negotiations on a Bilateral Investment Treaty might be one possibility. To counteract US unilateral moves to restrict trade relations, Xi might also offer financial support for the Trump administration's plans for infrastructural investment. He might also broach additional Chinese pledges to invest in the United States that would provide jobs for American workers. Translating pledges into actual commitments is likely to prove very protracted, but Mar-a-Lago is where these discussions need to begin.

North Korea represents a very different challenge and looming strategic nightmare. The Trump Administration believes that it is the first major foreign policy crisis that it could face, and it would occur on China's doorstep. Beijing also sees Korea as a matter of increased urgency.  Xi Jinping has voiced open frustration with Kim Jong-un's accelerated push for an operational nuclear weapons capability.  China's appeals that North Korea turn back from its dangerous course continue to fall on deaf ears in Pyongyang, even as the economic sanctions applied against North Korea have grown more severe.

However, the United States has repeatedly faulted China for not fully pressuring North Korea. The US believes that China's disproportionate role in sustaining the North Korean economy means that it has failed to use its leverage against Pyongyang.  In reality, Washington and Beijing have long preferred to outsource this issue to each other.  But this only ensures that North Korea can exploit the differences between the US and China.  

A central task for the two presidents will be to agree to a coordinated strategy that could help forestall the largest crisis in East Asia since the Korean War.  Neither wants a nuclear-armed North Korea, and neither wants another war on the peninsula. Xi and Trump cannot expect that two days of discussions in Florida will magically solve this issue, but it is where the process must begin.  The prospect of major crisis on the Korean peninsula amply justifies the decision of the two presidents to meet now rather than later.  The question is whether the two leaders can recognize that their common interests far outweigh their differences, and grasp the opportunity that the summit in Florida provides them. 

The author is Senior Fellow and former director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. He is also an Academic Committee Member of the Pangoal Institution, a leading China-based public policy think tank. 

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