Donald Trump is getting the "state visit-plus" experience in Beijing on Wednesday, according to China's US ambassador. But President Xi Jinping will not allow himself to be sidelined by his grandiose guest.
The Chinese media have been speculating for days about what kind of reception the US president will receive in the capital, and what political symbolism it might entail. Donald Trump is frequently described as the "first foreign head of state to visit China since the 19th party congress." The Communist Party event at the end of October marked the consolidation of Xi Jinping's power. Receiving Trump is the next step for the Chinese leader.
"For Xi, it is important that China and the United States are perceived as equals during the visit," said Paul Haenle, head of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "For their part, the Americans will try to avoid the visit being seen as a 'G2 summit' or a meeting of 'the two most powerful leaders in the world.'"
Special red carpet
Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute for US-Chinese relations at the Wilson Center, says that for China's leadership, the most important message the Communist Party can send to the people is that Xi is great and that China under Xi's leadership is also great. "The red carpet that China has prepared for Trump is wider and thicker than any carpet ever rolled out for a US president," he said. "China's leaders believe they can flatter Trump, and thereby manipulate him. In other words, they're not afraid of Trump, and see him more as a paper tiger."
The North Korea issue
Shortly before Trump left for Asia, Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Beijing's Renmin University, commented that Trump's expectations of his visit to China were boundless. "He's hoping for substantial economic concessions from China," Shi said. "From his stops in the other Asian countries, he's expecting two things. His allies should more strongly support the US course on North Korea. At the same time, the visit is meant to have the long-term effect of restricting China's political influence."
The other countries on Trump's itinerary are Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines – five countries in 12 days. China is the third stop on this first trip to Asia for the US leader, and the schedule is so packed that there won't be much time for intensive talks with his Chinese counterpart. Shi believes Trump is likely to push Xi to up the pressure on North Korea. "It's possible that Chinese sanctions could be increased," he said. "But China is not going to completely abandon its trade relations with North Korea, and will only partly cooperate, meaning that the conflict will continue."
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Trump without a trade strategy
In addition to the North Korea tension, trade is also on the agenda. Shortly before Trump's trip, China promised the US greater access to its markets. But observers aren't putting too much stock in the announcement, as it has been made many times before, and American companies continue to complain about the discrimination they face in China.
The US Chamber of Commerce in China has also criticized what it calls insufficient preparation for Trump's visit. William Zarit, the chamber's chairman, said little advance work had been done in the area of economics. He told reporters in Beijing that he's concerned there won't be much discussion on structural strategies.
"Trump must use his personal relationship to Xi that's been building up via phone calls, a meeting, and plenty of praise on Twitter and on TV, to reach his goals," said the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center's Paul Haenle. After his first meeting with Xi in Florida last April, Trump declared the two of them to be friends. During his presidential campaign, however, Trump frequently attacked China for what he called its unfair trade practices, and described Xi as a currency manipulator. His tone has since changed. When Xi was re-elected last month, Trump even congratulated him on his "extraordinary elevation."
Comparing Trump and Xi
And yet, the visit isn't expected to bring much in the way of concrete results. Experts say that more important is what happens after the visit. The Kissinger Institute's Daly, for example, believes the key issue is whether Trump will walk away with a strategic plan for China and Northeast Asia. To him, the most important audience for the trip is neither in China nor the United States. Rather, it's political leaders, opinion leaders, and people around the world who will be comparing the heads of the world's two biggest superpowers. "People will be asking themselves, which country is likely to be the strongest going forward?"