Leaders of two of the world’s greatest powers will meet for the first time today in Florida, and a lot hinges on things going well.
President Donald Trump will receive Chinese premier Xi Jinping and his wife, Madame Peng Liyuan, at Trump’s luxury resort, Mar-a-Lago. Relations between China and the United States have always been precarious, but previous U.S. administrations have tended to avoid any direct altercations with China. It’s an approach that makes sense — both countries rely on one another economically, and China has a tremendous amount of global sway.
Still, it’s anyone’s guess as to how the meeting between Trump and Xi will go.
On the campaign trail, Trump made frequent comments about China and trade — in addition to threatening a 45-percent tariff on Chinese goods. In the past, he has even implied that global warming had been fabricated by the Chinese in an effort to damage American manufacturing.
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
Since taking office, things have been rocky. Trump took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen following his election, a dramatic break with decades of protocol. Doubling down following criticism, he later gave an interview calling into question the “One China” policy, which establishes that countries may have official diplomatic relations with either China or Taiwan, but not both. After swift condemnations from Chinese officials and a period of notable silence from Xi, Trump walked back his remarks, and relations seemed to stabilize. Still, the two leaders have never met before now, and there’s a lot riding on the visit.
The United States’ global sway has changed significantly under Trump, and China has everything to gain from that shift in power. A big topic up for discussion will be trade. Tellingly, Xi stopped in Finland while en route to the United States, emphasizing the importance of China’s economic relationship with Europe. The European Union is China’s biggest trading partner, and could become even more important if Chinese-American relations grow colder.
“Many Finnish companies have had great success in China, pointing to the win-win nature of our economic, scientific and technological cooperation,” Xi wrote in a piece for the Helsinki Times. “For decades, China has maintained close cooperation with Finland on international affairs, and has supported Finland in playing a bigger role in the world and contributing more to global peace and development.”
Xi will be navigating a very different atmosphere in the United States. Trump has threatened time and time again to challenge the current relationship the United States has with China, underscoring an “America First” approach to manufacturing and trading, one that he has repeatedly emphasized in speeches and on Twitter.
The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
…and job losses. American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
Trade isn’t the only issue likely to come up. North Korea has also dominated much of the buzz about the meeting. On Wednesday, North Korea fired a ballistic missile off its eastern coast, further rousing concerns about its threat as a nuclear power. The move was an embarrassment for China, North Korea’s closest ally and one of the nation’s few defenders. For its part, the White House downplayed the incident.
“The United States has spoken enough about North Korea,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a brief statement. “We have no further comment.”
There’s also another big issue that the leaders may discuss: the South China Sea.
The area has become hotly contested over the past few years, as China has increasingly sought to mark the waters as its territory. While the United States officially has no stance on the issue, the Obama administration chided China over its actions, and worked to defend the interests of U.S. allies like the Philippines. Now, however, the Philippines are under the controversial leadership of Rodrigo Duterte, who has increasingly sought closer ties with China while edging away from the United States. Tillerson initially called for China to be denied access to the artificial islands it has created in the disputed waters, but has not revisited the topic.
Unfortunately, the pressing issue of climate change will likely not come up in their meeting. Trump has rolled back numerous Obama-era measures protecting the environment, in addition to proposing a budget eliminating 31-percent of the EPA’s funding. China is the world’s biggest polluter, closely followed by the United States; the two countries combined produce 44-percent of the world’s carbon dioxide. (Though China notably is also the world’s largest exporter of renewable energy.) Under the Paris Agreement, both nations pledged to greatly reduce their emissions, but Trump has criticized the deal and indicated an opposition to its demands. China has not taken well to this, calling the United States “selfish” for its efforts to bring back coal jobs and reviving an industry with a terrible environmental record. Chinese state media has been highly critical of Trump’s climate policies.
The meeting will ultimately be a test for both leaders. Xi, facing the end of his five year term and eyeing re-election in 2018, needs to appear strong in the face of potential American aggression. Meanwhile the Trump administration is still feeling out its dynamic with China. With a number of pressing issues at stake, the administration has increasingly made acquisitions to its large eastern counterpart. It remains to be seen if that pattern will continue.