Was the Trump-Xi Summit in Beijing a Hit or a Miss?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On November 8 and 9, Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping and Donald Trump held their first Beijing-based summit, a year after Trump’s surprise victory and just weeks after the predictable announcement Xi would serve a second term. During the visit, Trump said that he doesn’t “blame China” for the country’s unfair trade practices. Rather, he added, he gives China “great credit.” How successful was the visit for Trump, Xi, and the interests of their two nations? —The Editors


In 2011, the Rwandan ambassador to China explained why Africa deserves the blame for Chinese exploitation. “China knows how to respect Africans,” Ambassador Xavier Francois Ngarambe told an audience gathered at an event at his country’s embassy in Beijing. When Chinese companies take advantage of Africans, “you don’t put the blame on China, you put the blame on Africa.” He urged African companies to develop their capacity to take advantage of the opportunities China’s expansion into the continent provided, but added, “If Africa remains colonized in these conditions, than Africa just deserves to be colonized.”

During his first state visit to Beijing, U.S. President Donald Trump repeated his claim that the U.S.-China trade relationship is a “very one-sided and unfair one.” But then he said—in a remark as unfairly absurd as the African ambassador’s, and one that drew a shocked murmur from the assembled American press corps—“I don’t blame China. Who can blame a country that is able to take advantage of another country for the benefits of its citizens? I give China great credit.”

Like the Rwandan ambassador, and dozens of other powerful officials who have visited China over the last decade, Trump couldn’t bring himself to blame Beijing for something that, in his worldview, is clearly Beijing’s fault.

Why do leaders grow tongue-tied on official visits in China? Why do they trip over themselves to please their hosts? There are two main reasons. First, Beijing excels at showering dignitaries with a level of pageantry and pomp that would make criticizing one’s hosts seem uncouth in the extreme—even for someone as condemnatory as Trump. Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping shut down the Forbidden City—the former home of China’s emperors—and personally toured Trump around the city’s imperial treasures. The goal was to make the experience feel special, exclusive, customized: a “state-visit plus,” a term that China has not used for any foreign leader “since the Communist Party took power in 1949,” according to The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading Chinese-owned English-language newspaper.

Second, Beijing has mastered the ability to punish its critics in such a way that leaders often decide it’s not worth the fuss. After Norway’s Nobel committee awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to the then imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, for example, Beijing cut ties—until a sufficiently contrite Oslo worked to restore them. (Liu died in state custody in July.)

Some foreign heads of state manage to maintain their integrity—or at least, their consistency—when visiting Beijing. It’s America’s misfortune that its people elected a leader so susceptible to flattery. Of his dinner with Xi in the Forbidden City, Trump said after he left Beijing, “They say in the history of people coming to China, there’s been nothing like that,” adding, “and I believe it.”

With Trump in the White House, American and Chinese diplomats did not appear to have to wrestle with each other so hard over what to name the visit. China’s ambassador to the U.S. called it a “state visit plus.” His American counterparts seemed to have just concurred. It was a trip that materialized on schedule.

It was not always the case with previous administrations. Back then, a good deal of exchange between the two countries’ diplomats was devoted to agreeing on labels. Was it a work visit? A state visit? Or a visit of a truly fitting nature? Answers to those questions of protocol said a lot about how each side weighed value of the time and trouble spent in either paying a visit or accommodating a visitor.

As far as deliverables are concerned, Trump’s trip was a success in that it zeroed in on trade and investment. After all, trade and investment are the most tangible manifestation of ties between the two countries and societies. Everything else being equal, China and the United States need each other’s markets.

It is true that the level of U.S. dependence on foreign trade for maintaining its aggregate level of economic welfare is much lower than that of China. Still, it does not really take a trained economist to demystify claims that the U.S. holds a trump card over China (or, any other sizeable economy of the world) when it comes to bilateral trade. In the post-colonial era, trade between any two economies is mutually dependent. Neither side is doing the other any favors by finding ways to address the other side’s concerns and demands on trade and investment.

On trade and investment, though, the trip fell short in the sense that there was not much of an effort to highlight flow of investment from the United States to China. There are numerous reasons behind such a state of affairs and, in the same way as over other aspects of the relationship, Chinese and American views differ. At the end of the day, the Chinese economy stands to benefit from increased competition from American and other foreign investors. Flows of investment from Chinese into American markets can be domestic—politically more sustainable when they are reciprocated from the American side, too.

It remains to be seen what Trump’s team means when it adds “free and open” as a prefix to its call for broadening the geographical scope of America’s pivot to the “Indo-Pacific,” a term whose use gained in frequency on Trump’s trip through East Asia.

In a sense, Trump’s trip to Beijing can be viewed as a net gain for the United States. By announcing a new strategy days before Trump left for Beijing, the U.S. signaled China should think through how it chooses to fit in while the Trump team fills in the gaps down the road.

Trump’s Asia trip was all show and no substance. He did not move the needle on his prime objective, to get Chinese help with North Korea. If and when that needle moves, it will be because of Chinese assessments of how the North Korea problem affects Chinese interests, rather than due to flattery, pressure, or tradeoffs on economic issues. Indeed, I think the Chinese feel that the sense of crisis around the Korea situation is unnecessary and counterproductive. They don’t like the Kim Jong-un regime, but they don’t see any risk of Kim launching a nuclear war. So, in their view, why the crisis? Calm down and deal with reality, through a combination of deterrence and negotiation. Taking that perspective, they have no need to be drawn into a crisis of Trump’s creation, which he is probably using to distract attention from the Russia investigation. That’s his problem, not theirs.

Nor did the $250 billion of announced “deals” (which the media have already deconstructed as not firm deals) change the U.S.-China economic relationship in any structural way. For that, we needed to stay in the Trans-Pacific Partnership; negotiate a Bilateral Investment Treaty, about which we heard nothing during the trip; broaden the powers of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (C.F.I.U.S.), which Congress seems to be doing; and take steps to protect our intellectual property from forced transfer and from cybertheft. We saw no progress on this agenda during the visit.

In Japan and South Korea, he made nice with the leaders, but relationship-building cannot alleviate our allies’ concern that we have no coherent Asia strategy and lack a firm commitment to our alliance obligations. What will forever ring in Asian leaders’ ears is Lindsey Graham’s report last summer that Trump told him, “If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong-un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here.” The invocation of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” is no substitute for a strategy—which, right or wrong, the “pivot to Asia” was.

And leaders in Southeast Asia, including Roderigo Duterte, will calculate their interests not on the basis of bromancey vibes, but on the basis of the degree to which ties with China versus the U.S. will advance their interests. Southeast Asian countries naturally balance between the two major powers. But as they see China steering a steady course and the U.S. floundering, they will inevitably tilt more to China.

One Trump remark during his visit to South Korea struck me as especially revealing. Referring to the North Korea crisis, he said, “Ultimately it will all work out, because it always works out, has to work out.” That philosophy has carried him through a risk-taking, zig-zagging, threatening-and-cajoling, relationship-based real estate and show business career. I don’t think it will work in international politics.

Both President Xi and President Trump wanted to make the state visit a success. But Xi’s success built on the failure of Trump.

Having consolidated his personal power at the 19th Party Congress just weeks ago, President Xi is eager to assert China as a world power respected by other big powers on the world stage. Among all the big power relations, the relationship with the U.S. is most consequential but also most difficult to manage. Going abroad, President Trump wanted to forget many political troubles back home while demonstrating his skills to extract major trade concessions from China, which could go a long way toward rehabilitating his tarnished reputation as a dealmaker and score tangible diplomatic accomplishments to overcome his threadbare domestic and foreign policy record.

His hosts, the descendants of mandarins who mastered the art of pleasing emperors for thousands of years, knew how to show their hospitality and make their guest feel good. They staged a “state visit plus,” including a sunset tour of the Forbidden City, a full-dress military parade, a 21-gun salute, an elaborate banquet at the Great Hall of the People off Tiananmen Square, and a signing ceremony involving more than $250 billion in deals. Chinese massage worked on Trump’s ego. Without complaining about China’s information firewall or mentioning the disagreements on human rights, Taiwan, and China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea, President Trump blamed the trade imbalance on his American predecessors rather than on Chinese leaders, saying that he could not blame the Chinese for taking advantage of weak American trade policy.

While Beijing accomplished its objectives, Trump’s visit was not received very well back home because it did not serve the U.S. interests. In particular, Trump’s blaming of his predecessors, rather than Beijing, for the trade deficit drew sharp criticism. His flattery of the Chinese leaders was criticized as serving to “make China great again,” projecting an air of deference to China in public that was almost unheard-of for a visiting American president. By concluding that the United States could better achieve its goals by flattering a Chinese leader than by challenging him, Trump seemed to signal a reversal of roles: the U.S. may now need China’s help more than the other way around. Trump’s $250-billion China-haul was reported as featuring little of substance because the deals were a mix of pre-existing contracts and non-binding memorandums of understanding (MOUs). Many of them were previously concluded or about to be done anyway without the Presidential visit.

The backlash goes beyond disapproval of Trump and his policies. It also relates to increased scrutiny of the long-term policy of engagement with China that started under Nixon. It was premised on the idea that open U.S. markets, the commitment of technology and investment, and a downplaying of trade and human rights concerns were an acceptable price to see China modernize, liberalize, and become a “responsible stakeholder” in the U.S.-led international system. But the Chinese have not rallied around the promise of greater openness and liberalism, but instead to greater wealth, power, and global clout. Many Americans are concerned that China is striving to oust the U.S. as the dominant power in East Asia. Some have declared the failure of engagement and called for containment. These shifting sentiments were partially responsible for Trump’s election victory in 2016. These people no longer embrace the idea that with time China will become more liberal like America and are comfortable with making China uncomfortable.

In this case, although both President Trump and President Xi may think that the summit in Beijing built goodwill and could result in positive outcomes down the road, for many in the U.S. it was primarily a spectacular show of an imperial visit rather than a serious negotiation to produce substantive diplomatic and trade agreements to resolve the differences and problems between the two countries. A happy President Trump in Beijing with the Chinese promising half a billion dollars in business deals was only a palliative rather than a cure for the problems.

Viewed as a whole, Trump’s first trip to Asia presented a much more consistent vision for the future of Asia than Democrat observers such as myself might have expected. His proposal of equal, sovereign nations in the region dealing with each other on a fair, equal footing, although in parts anachronistic, presents a vision for the future of Asia that sharply contrasts with the vision of a powerful China guiding the region to a “common fate.” Countries of Asia must have noticed this contrast. Rather than signaling the U.S. withdrawal from the region, the Trump pivot, if applied consistently through his presidency, offers an alternative to the “great power relationships” championed by China.

Even viewing the structure of Trump’s speeches, one sees a difference between Trump’s approach and Xi’s. For example, Trump’s speech at the APEC summit spent the first half praising the social and economic achievements of Asian countries. There was no mention of the United States until the second half of the speech, nor did Trump discuss any problems in Asia until the second part of his speech. In contrast, although Xi's speech outlined a series of common problems, such as trade barriers, obstacles to innovation, and underdevelopment, these are problems that the Chinese leadership has identified, not necessary the greatest problems identified by APEC nations themselves.

Consistently throughout his entire tour of Asia, Trump did not make assumptions about problems facing the region, with the exception of North Korea. Rather, Trump pointed out how the U.S. planned on tackling its main problem of trade imbalance. In fact, the whole thrust of Trump’s APEC speech was that countries all have a right to identify their own challenges and tackle them. The United States, where possible, is happy to work with countries to help resolve their problems.

Some observers rightly were taken aback when Trump repeatedly stated during the trip that he “gives credit” to Asian countries for pursuing mercantilist policies. Rather than yet another example of his erratic utterance, however, his message seems to be that countries, including the United States, have a right to pursue policies that maximize the interests to their citizens. This was a much more transparent and laissez faire approach than vague promises of “mutual winning,” “common destiny,” and “new style international relations” that peppered Xi’s APEC speech.

Where the Trump agenda fell flat was the insistence on the anachronistic bilateral approach of building relationships with countries in Asia. Decades of research have shown that multilateral institutions make agreements between countries more credible and persistent. Trump rightly pointed out that countries have abused these institutions to their own benefits, but the solution is to revise these institutions along with trading partners who also have a stake in their revision. Instead, China was able to explicitly assert its vision of a regional free trade zone, which in theory would have been preferred by most countries of the region. In practice, countries in Asia of course realize that China is the biggest practitioner of mercantilism and that a China-led “free trade” area will still involve massive Chinese protectionism and subsidies of its industries. They likely would have preferred a free trade framework led by the U.S., but Trump alas let this opportunity slip.

There are grave, serious, and sobering consequences in the logic of president Donald Trump’s now famous statement about China not being at fault for its trade surplus with the United States and its disrespect of Intellectual Property Rights.

If China is not guilty for this, then the West and other powers, which tried to colonize China in the 19th century and invaded it in the 20th century, are not at fault for taking advantage of China’s weakness.

This view shelves Chinese ideas about a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign conquerors, ideas of being debased by the Japanese invasion. After all, those ideas about the past can make the present and the future quite difficult, as they hinder normal relations with neighbors.

Trump’s logic opens a Pandora box. If the United States and not China is to blame for being weak vis-a-vis Beijing (giving in on the trade deficit and IP theft), then the United States now must be strong with China.

This logic opens the floodgate to whatever consequences or  measures the U.S. deems fit to cope with China. This raises the possibility of a tough confrontation of the U.S. with China.

Does China realize the danger and the threat implicit in this logic? How does China think to react to this threat and this logic?

Then there is the other problem, which many in China for many years have decided to forget: many Asian countries, right or wrong, believe China is protecting its own interests at home and trying to expand market share for its goods an industries abroad. This mercantilism, Victor Shih noted above, is implicit in China’s own system, which is extremely opaque. Here political and economic decisions are interconnected and impossible to decipher from the outside.

This creates a very uneven playing field for foreign companies operating in China and also for Chinese companies operating abroad. This reality plus the threat of Trump’s logic makes for a very dangerous mix for China, one that China needs to address in a realistic and clear way.

If China accepts Trump’s logic, that it bears no blame for its mercantilism, then mercantilism (or worse) can be applied against China. To prevent this, China must totally reconsider its internal political-economical system and its approach to the international arena. If China doesn’t think of other countries, other countries will not think of China.

Here, to underestimate Trump and his vast base of support in the U.S. and abroad, would be a grave mistake, equal only to those of his fellow republicans and the democrats who underestimated him during the presidential campaign.