All eyes will be on Florida for the first meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. As a candidate, Trump frequently took aim at China. Now, he’ll have to set a new tone for this key relationship, says Miodrag Soric.
Friend or foe? Donald Trump's view of the world is often black and white. Until now, the 70-year old has placed China in the enemy camp, mainly for economic reasons. For decades now, Beijing has had trade surpluses in the hundreds of billions of dollars. And that was reason enough for presidential candidate Trump to take issue with China in almost every speech he made: Past administrations had permitted Beijing to commit trade abuses. Trump promised his supporters to change this as soon as he took office.
But what actions will follow his words? That's a question Chinese President Xi Jinping is now surely asking himself as he prepares to meet Trump for the first time in person. The answer to that question is of interest to all countries that have large trade surpluses with the United States, including Germany, Canada and Mexico.
Xi, who doesn't like surprises, will have closely followed German Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent visit to Washington. Merkel was able to alleviate Trump's anger over supposed unfair bilateral trade by highlighting Germany's investment in the US. Xi is also likely to have billions worth of investments in the US economy in his luggage. But will that be enough for Trump?
There's a lot at stake at this US-Chinese summit. In the worst case, a hidden - or even open - trade war. If the US increases its tariff wall, the global economy will shrink, bringing disastrous consequences for many countries. Such fears would be minimal if there were any other president in the White House. The US itself has also suffered recently due to sluggish growth. But anything seems possible with Trump. He's not interested in the complicated intricacies of global relations, and he has little patience with political formalities. The way he botched the attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare is just one of many examples. As is so often the case, the devil is in the details.
The Chinese president puts a high value on being treated with respect. Xi is, after all, the representative of the world power that is throwing US dominance in global politics into question.
Washington needs a partner in Beijing
Beijing's support is needed if the world wants to put more pressure on North Korea and its reckless nuclear program. Kim Jong Un has fired another ballistic missile, just ahead of the meeting in Florida. Trump will demand China's help in dealing with Pyongyang. Is he prepared to make concessions in the conflict over the islands in the South China Sea? Currently, there's little evidence to support this. Against the will of its neighbors, Beijing continues to assert its right to this strategically important region.
No one is really expecting significant breakthroughs on this and other questions at this first meeting between Trump and Xi. It's more of a get-to-know-you session, aimed at building trust and laying the foundation for a working relationship. Many important issues will likely remain on the sidelines: Climate policy, the war on terror, human rights questions, protection of intellectual property, and relations with Taiwan, to name a few.
Friend or foe? Trump still has to learn that other powerful countries can sometimes be both at the same time.
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