What Happened When Trump Met Xi?

A ChinaFile Transcript

The following is an edited transcript of “ChinaFile Presents: What Happened When Trump Met Xi?” a discussion of Donald Trump’s five-country trip to Asia, with Daniel Russel, Bonnie Glaser, and Orville Schell, moderated by Susan Jakes. The panel took place at Asia Society in New York on November 15, 2017, after Trump’s return to the U.S. —The Editors

Susan Jakes: We called this event—at some point—“What Happened When Trump Met Xi,” but we’re actually going to talk about Trump’s entire 12-day trip to Asia. And we’ll put the China piece, as Chinese officials like to say, “at the core.” This afternoon, President Trump gave his own assessment of the trip, in pretty lengthy and remarkably cogent scripted remarks, and we’ll have a chance to talk about your thoughts on his framing of what took place, how you view what occurred on the trip, and what it augurs for U.S. policy, the U.S.-China relationship, and the dynamics of the Asian Pacific region. To start, I want to try to establish a bit of a baseline so that we can think about what made this trip different from previous presidential trips to Asia and where those differences come from. Danny Russel spent decades working in Asia for the State Department, and during the Obama Administration served not only as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, but also as the Senior Director for East Asia on the National Security Council at the White House, and hence was deeply involved in the strategy, planning, and orchestration of past presidential visits to Asia. So Danny, set the scene a little bit. When past presidents have traveled to Asia, what has the process looked like? How much happens ahead of the trip versus on it or after it? What are the negotiations like? How do you think of the mix of ceremony and substance, strategic communications, and protocol? And maybe most importantly, what is the utility of a trip like this? It’s an exhausting expedition, it wears everybody involved out. But what is a trip like this good for when it’s working at its best?

Daniel Russel:I’ve been on the receiving end of presidential visits to the countries in whose embassies I’ve served overseas, and I’ve also been involved in the planning and the execution, certainly of all of the Asia trips of President Obama and Vice President Biden, and to a lesser order of magnitude the travel of National Security Advisors and Secretaries of State. If it is grueling to be on the trip, it is even tougher to prepare for it. But there are different benchmarks you can use to evaluate the relative success or failure of any trip. Obviously, if something dramatically goes wrong, that’s a huge problem, and a not inconsiderable amount of effort goes into insuring that the logistics, the protocol, the press arrangements, etc. are as organized and as smooth as you can make them so that the trip looks good.

But the real issue is substantive, because there is no more precious commodity in the world than the time of the president of the United States. And just to get to Asia eats up a considerable amount of time. The arrival ceremonies, the pomp and circumstance, the honor guards, the banquets—all of that eats up a lot of time. So question number one is, what can the president get done that matters and that can’t be done by somebody else? Because the easy stuff should and will generally be taken care of by the ambassador to the country, by the secretary of state, by diplomats. So what are those things? I think the second question is, how do you maximize the leverage that comes with a state visit or a summit? Because this is in a way the world’s biggest crowbar. The President of the United States’ visiting a capital like Beijing is the leverage that can move some of these intractable issues. But to move them and to use that leverage takes a very substantial amount of preparation. I think the third index is what impact it has, not just on the issue, not just on the host country, but on the region as a whole and on the attitudes towards the United States, specifically in terms of our influence and our credibility.

So to prepare for a trip, absolutely the most important thing is for the U.S. side, for the government, to get its act together. Because there are a lot of agencies with big agendas, and the relationship with China is a huge and important one and has many dimensions. If you get all of the horses pulling in opposite directions, you’re not going to win the Ben Hur race. So corralling the interests, ensuring that the president is presented with real goals and real priorities, with a real strategy, and starting a process early so that, in this case, the Chinese hear the same message, across the board, consistently—this is what is important, this is what we need, this is what success looks like.

Being able to leverage the tremendous importance that the Chinese put on form, substance, protocol, image, and use that as barter material to try and get some of the substantive outcomes that are important to us, is really I think the hallmark of a well-prepared and successful visit. And then lastly, the question is, do the countries around China, do the allies, partners, and fence-sitters in East Asia and South Asia, in the world, come away after the visit believing that the United States has a good approach, a plan for dealing with China that’s neither to recreate a Cold War nor to naively succumb to the Chinese agenda? Have we reinforced our credibility as well as have we engineered meaningful outcomes on issues that we truly care about in the U.S.-China relationship?

Susan Jakes: Bonnie Glaser, you have also been deeply involved in U.S. policy on Asia for many years, and interact regularly with U.S. diplomats and Asian diplomats. Give us your quick and general assessment of how well this trip accomplished some of the things that Danny just described. How does it look held up against that template?

Bonnie Glaser: Let me start by saying that the administration put out very explicit goals that they wanted to achieve for this visit. They sent them out to the press and to the think tank community. I am somebody who receives the advance briefing that people like Danny used to give, and one thing that actually this administration did quite well was that during the trip, at several of the stops, officials made phone calls to a few dozen people to talk about each individual stop and what they were doing. They really messaged early on that they wanted to achieve three goals they said explicitly, and I think there was a fourth that was maybe implicit. And those three goals were: to mobilize the international community to put more pressure on North Korea; to put forward a vision of a U.S. strategy toward the region that they had decided to call “the Indo-Pacific”; and to promote fair and reciprocal trade and economic relations in the region.

The implicit goal, I think, was to reassure the region, which has been very concerned about the Trump administration’s having walked away from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), having occasionally tweeted things about Kim Jong-un—“Little Rocket Man”—made people nervous about whether they might wake up one morning and see that the U.S. has actually launched an attack. So what was interesting to me were the parts of the trip that seemed very well scripted, when the president would read the teleprompter. The speech that he gave in Korea had some very good elements: making sure that the Koreans knew that the U.S. has not completely walked away from diplomacy, and talking about the North Koreans themselves, which many Koreans I have talked to have said is very rarely discussed in a public way like that. There were moments on the trade front, at the APEC meeting, when the President did his best, which was simply to read a speech and, put forward the message that the U.S. wants to have free-trade agreements with countries in the region and the 11 members now of the TPP. But I think the problem is that except for those few countries that have free trade agreements with the U.S., they don’t seem very eager to negotiate them. So I think there wasn’t a very successful job of putting out a new economic policy, and I still don’t really see the vision of the Indo-Pacific. Just some snippets or headlines, but I don’t see a hell of a lot.

There was a lot of work that went into preparing the trip. There were speeches that were written. Of course, when the President sits down with leaders, he has to have in his mind what he wants to achieve with each individual leader. We can take the example that Danny raised of China, an enormous amount of pomp and circumstance in that trip, and if you look at the concrete things that the United States got from it, at least so far, from what we have seen, I don’t think we see very much.

Susan Jakes: Orville Schell, you were on the trip with Donald Trump on assignment for a forthcoming story for Vanity Fair, and you followed the President on the Japan, Korea, and China portions of his trip. Talk a little bit about the first two stops, what you saw there and how you thought the President comported himself.

Orville Schell: I think that in Japan and Korea, it was quite encouraging, in a way. As Bonnie pointed out, Trump did give good speeches. He did read the teleprompter, and he didn’t do a lot of miscellaneous chatter. He wasn’t blaming, explaining, or doing any kind of marginalia, and I think it went very well. There was a lot of pomp and ceremony, you’re right, Danny, and I think Donald Trump certainly does appreciate it. I mean, all you have to do is wander through one Trump hotel and you can see that. I think everybody was quite surprised by how orderly it was, and by how it seemed like the staff had captured his attention. We were sitting in the National Assembly in Seoul, and he was giving this very good speech, and I saw that the National Security Advisor for Asia was sitting down there and in the front row, so I emailed him and I said, “Hey, your guy’s giving a pretty good speech.” And he emailed back to say “Not bad,” he said, “if I dare say so myself.” Of course, he’d written it. We were all a little bit inspired to think that the trip would sort of go like that. And what was happening? Well, he was reassuring Japan, he was reassuring Korea, that we were good allies after having told them they’re going to have to pay for more of their own defense, and being very uncertain about it, as he was with NATO. And he had a very good relationship with Abe. I would say that out of all of the leaders that he buddied up with, Abe was probably the best job he did. They seemed to actually have a little chemistry, which is a big thing for Donald Trump, this idea of chemistry.

Susan Jakes: Abe got him the hat.

Orville Schell: They had a little hat exchange. “Shinzo and Donald Making the Alliance Great Again.” It was Shinzo Abe’s gift to Donald—he could appreciate that.

But then, of course, Beijing is the big enchilada. This is where the cement is really going to be mixed. This is where things really start to matter. And this is a country that isn’t an ally. This is a country that isn’t a democracy. It doesn’t have an open press. And so the whole wager suddenly became very different. One other thing I will say to you, on those first two countries: I had the distinct impression that when Trump gives a speech, you almost think he’s reading away and he’s saying, “Boy, this is interesting. You know, I’m actually learning something here.” I think that he is an experiential creature. He’s not an intellectual. He’s not a reader. And so when he actually gets into a discussion with a leader, he is learning things he’s never heard before. When he gives a speech, it is actually his sort of study course. And I think it is surprising to him sometimes, what he is saying, because he may not have heard it before. Now, in the National Assembly there was some discussion why he didn’t come out right away. And I forget who it was who got up and said that “President Trump is in the back room working on his speech.” I hate to think what that was like, but the idea was that he was involving himself somewhat. By and large, these things are just kind of given to him, and he goes out and he does it. And if he reads it, good. I mean, he has good staff people—it goes pretty well. But then we come to the other part of the trip, which we can talk about.

Susan Jakes: Maybe we should stay on Korea for a second. What do you make of the dizzying shifts in the administration’s rhetoric on North Korea? We had “Little Rocket Man” and “fire and fury.” Shortly before he left the White House, Steve Bannon said that there were no credible military options. Then there was this more moderate rhetoric in South Korea, and then, a few days later, the President tweeted, “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me old, when I would NEVER call him short and fat? Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend. Maybe someday it will happen.” And today, China announced that it’s sending the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liason Department to North Korea on what seems to be a trip that may result in some urging for further talks. The President’s rhetoric this afternoon was more moderate, and he also said that he and Xi Jinping had agreed when they were talking that they would not countenance a “freeze for freeze” deal. So what do you make of where all of this is going?

Daniel Russel: For all of the repudiation of the Obama era, and the Obama and Bush policies on Asia and North Korea, as Orville and Bonnie have pointed out, there were a lot of conventional aspects visible in the President’s trip. The fact that he began in two allied capitals, which is precisely the same thing Obama did in 2009, is a very good thing, a very important thing. And if, as Orville suggests, the president is learning on the job, wouldn’t we rather have him learn from democratically elected leaders like Abe Shinzo and Moon Jae-in? They’re the ones who really can and should explain what the important values, principles, and policies are to maintain the kind of stability in the Asia Pacific region that the U.S. has championed.

Susan Jakes: And do you have the sense that they got what they needed from him, from the U.S.?

Daniel Russel: The fact of the visit and the substance of what the President said while he visited went a long way to offset the anxiety and the confusion that had been spawned first in the transition, but then also in the first six months of the administration. Whether you’re dealing with your allies, Japan and Korea, or you’re dealing with an adversary such as North Korea, I’m sure there’s a role for fake-outs and psychological warfare on the part of the Pentagon and the CIA, but when it comes to the President of the United States and the Administration, I tend to suspect that consistency, demonstration of resolve, and clear messaging, is probably what’s important. It may be that name-calling was the secret of success in the Republican primary, but this is a guy with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and he’s also got a propaganda ministry and a pretty experienced name-calling team. I don’t think that taunts will really help with the leader of North Korea, nor will they really help bolster the confidence and the faith of allies and their partners. What does work on both counts is unity—a sustained, credible policy of deterrence, of defense, and keeping the door open for diplomacy. When I look at the Trump Asia policy generally, setting aside some of the significant outliers and exceptions like the abandonment of the TPP and the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and so on, I see a lot that’s awfully familiar to me from the Obama years. And the notion of approaching North Korea with a two-track strategy, of maximizing pressure through sanctions, galvanizing international support, and working hard on the China angle, but at the same time making it clear that there is a peaceful path through authentic negotiations, well, hey, that was the strategy that the Obama Administration pursued over eight years and I think it’s a good thing it’s continuing in that sense.

Bonnie Glaser: There are, of course, some important differences. And I do think the fact that President Trump, from virtually Day 1, made North Korea the top agenda item in the U.S.-China relationship and made it clear that that was almost the litmus test of the relationship was different from what we saw under any prior president. And this was of course in part because of the recognition of the urgency of the North Korean threat. Of course it evolved over the course of the Obama administration. I think that most people in the intelligence community would say that North Korea made faster progress than we had anticipated early in the Obama administration. So the message that was delivered at Mar-a-Lago to Xi Jinping was, “It’s all about North Korea.” Now, it’s never a good idea to have just one item on your agenda, so I’m a little critical of that, but putting it at the forefront, letting Xi Jinping realize that there wasn’t going to be a good U.S.-China relationship unless the Chinese got on board with the strategy of putting more pressure on North Korea, I give the Trump administration credit for that. The Chinese have signed on to U.N. Security Council resolutions that have cut off imports of seafood, and iron ore, and coal, and textiles, and all sorts of things that they had not done in the past, in part because of the recognition of the urgency. If Hillary Clinton had been elected, her policy might have been quite similar. I’m not saying that this is necessarily a brilliant move—it was the obvious move, and he did it, and I give him credit for that.

You mentioned the trip Song Tao, the head of the International Liaison Department of the Party, is going to make to North Korea. My sense is either this is something President Xi Jinping told President Trump about and they talked about what the message would be, and he’s carrying some tough message there, or this is a surprise to the Trump Administration, that after Trump departed Asia now Xi Jinping has decided that the China-North Korea relationship has deteriorated beyond the point that the Chinese can accept and that it’s really at a low point. I think the Chinese are quite fearful of the implications of a rupture in that relationship. So I’m not prepared to say which one it is, but I wonder if the Trump Administration says “Right on, this is what he’s doing,” or they’re really surprised. Usually the tough messages that are delivered by the Chinese to the North Koreans are delivered by a Foreign Ministry official, not a Party official.

Susan Jakes: And do all of you agree that North Korea is deterrable at this point in terms of its nuclear ambitions? Do you think the Chinese think it is? There has been some mixed signaling on this question from the current administration.

Daniel Russel: U.S. policy is predicated upon the belief that North Korea can be deterred from using nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The empirical evidence shows that North Korea can’t be deterred from pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. I agree generally with what Bonnie said. I think the fact that Song Tao is visiting Pyongyang this week is very important. Now, it is normal for a senior Party person to travel to socialist brother capitals in the aftermath of the Party Congress and brief. It is also the case that the Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, who has attempted to go to Pyongyang, was refused entry, was rejected.

Bonnie Glaser: So was the lower-level official Kong Xuanyou.

Daniel Russel: And Kong Xuanyou is the official who is now responsible for North Korea. He’s their special representative, and by all rights, if the goal was to deliver a message on North Korea he’s who one would have thought would have gone. There was precious little time between the conclusion of the 19th Party Congress and the visit of President Trump, so it may not surprise us that the trip to Pyongyang didn’t occur before then. But, having received President Trump, it’s easy to imagine that Xi Jinping would direct Song Tao to convey to Kim Jong-un or to the senior-most North Korean officials that he can meet that “China has done everything in its power to hold back the war-mongering American imperialists who were just itching to attack. It’s thanks to Xi Jinping’s intervention that there hasn’t been a preemptive strike,” etc., etc., but “that it’s unclear how long we can really hold this tide back and you guys really need to make some kind of concession or accommodation.” And the other half of the message is, “Look, I talked to President Trump. He’s not entirely unreasonable. The Americans would be open to some sort of negotiation. You can probably get more at the bargaining table than you can get through huffing and puffing and blustering and threatening. The important thing is to lower the temperature. Trump is the ‘Artist of the Deal,’ and ‘Why don’t you see if you can’t make a deal.’” We’ll see. Chinese messages of restraint to North Korea don’t have a record of particular success, but as Bonnie pointed out, this is a moment, increasingly, of real tension and real risk and we’ll see what happens.

Susan Jakes: I want to give Orville a chance to talk about what happened when Trump arrived in Beijing. The President said this afternoon that he and Melania were “greatly honored by the splendor of their reception.” Maybe you can talk just a little bit about what that was like.

Orville Schell: Before getting to Beijing, I think that Trump was absolutely right to put North Korea at the top of the list. It’s a dangerous problem. He certainly has gotten the world’s attention. I think where it gets a little dangerous is that he tends to personalize every relationship, friend or foe. For him, every relationship is almost a kind of a courtship. He’s obviously very alienated from Kim Jong-un and calls him all sorts of bad names and threatens him. You really saw this in Japan, Korea, and China: with each of these big leaders, it’s almost as if he’s wooing another wife. And he talks about it that way. The “chemistry,” the “friendship.”

Susan Jakes: He said Xi Jinping was “a very special man.”

Orville Schell: “A very special man.” It’s almost as if he’s on some sort of Asian computer dating trip. It gets very, very personal with him. And I think that in the process, it’s so important for him to have a good relationship—in his view, that he’s won over the other leader—that often the policy issues get lost in the shuffle and he forgets exactly why he’s there, which is not simply to woo and court and win the leader, but that there is an agenda, that his country has interests that need to be discussed and need to be defended in an orderly and comprehensive way. This does explain sometimes the way things get lost in the mix. He’s so focused on the interaction. That’s his world. That’s sort of the television world. That’s the world of the deal. You’re always talking to one guy. The big guys make the deal, and the other people have to work out the details. I thought that as we got to China. I’m not quite sure what the deal finally was: $350 billion worth of . . .

Susan Jakes: Two-fifty. Well, it went from $9 billion to $250 billion, to “maybe triple that.” That’s a pretty big rounding error even for our erstwhile-billionaire Commerce Secretary.

Daniel Russel: Or maybe $1 trillion.

Bonnie Glaser: They’re MOUs.

Orville Schell: A lot of MOUs. A lot of uncertain things, and a fair share of deals that probably would have come down anyway. What’s that worth? I think you probably have to discount it. So, finally, I think you have to ask in Beijing, “What, finally, did he get?” We don’t know everything that was talked about, whether there may have been something that was discussed, and this trip by Song Tao would be a result of some of the things that went on between him and Xi Jinping. I think to say that he was infatuated—I mean, you watched him, and I was standing about 10 feet away from them as he and Xi marched by the band and the kids waving the flowers and the little flags (very boilerplate stuff) and the kids were practicing for like an hour before. And this very stern director would say, “All right, now, I’m going to come down the red carpet and when I reach this point, I want all the flags and flowers to start moving into action.” You know, I didn’t see a lot of chemistry coming back from Xi Jinping. First of all, they couldn’t speak to each other. It’s hard to know what was in Xi Jinping’s head except, “This is a man we have to deal with. This is a man that needs to be manipulated. This is a man we need to show deference to and need to treat with great delicacy. And we understand what it is he really wants. He wants, ironically, the same thing that China wants: he wants to be respected.

Susan Jakes: Danny and I were talking earlier about a critic of the administration’s Asia policy and who said, in essence, “Trump’s going to arrive in China and they’re going to wave some shiny thing in front of him and he’s going to succumb,” and he literally walked into the Forbidden City and there was gold vase, just sort of sitting on a table, there for him to pick up.

Daniel Russel: Human relations in diplomacy and politics matter a lot, and personal relations among leaders is a factor in the equation. All that said, I don’t think that there’s much in Leninist doctrine that would lead you to believe that a leader like Xi Jinping is going to be sentimental when it comes to China’s core interests, national interests. Moreover, I was a fly on wall during all of the meetings that President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretaries Clinton and Kerry had with Xi Jinping, first as Vice President and then as President. This is a tough-minded, patriotic, very forceful, visionary leader who is determined. He’s got a plan and so, having a nice meeting, having a nice chocolate cake, having a nice dinner, enjoying the entertainment, is all well and good, but I don’t see any prospect for that materially altering the trajectory of China’s strategy or its approach when there is a divergence between U.S. and Chinese strategic interests. And the big question apropos of North Korea is “What is the extent of the convergence, and what is the extent of the divergence between what we each really want?” We know that both leaders have said over and over again that they’re committed to the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea and that’s been China’s position since the early 2000s. But, at what cost? Because, the Chinese leader in my experience, has always emphasized the importance of avoiding war and avoiding chaos and the collapse of North Korea. I think Donald Trump went to Beijing to try to get Xi Jinping to do more things to North Korea, and I think Xi Jinping received Donald Trump intending to prevent him from doing more things to North Korea if those things risked either war or chaos.

Orville Schell: So, Danny, let me ask both of you a question. One thing that Trump did confer on Xi Jinping was a kind of deference. What do you think that’s worth in the grand scheme of things, in terms of the U.S.-China relationship, in terms of getting something out. I mean, he didn’t raise human rights, he didn’t sort of put it to Xi the way other presidents have, being on ‘the wrong side of history,’ or, you know, you’re not democratic, etc., etc. Do you think that’s worth much?

Susan Jakes: No questions at the press conference.

Bonnie Glaser: I think it is worth something. But let’s also recall that when there are messages from U.S. Presidents that the Chinese don’t like, they filter them out. They’re not always successful, of course. But Xi Jinping had just emerged from the 19th Party Congress in a very strong position.

Orville Schell: And Trump had praised him.

Bonnie Glaser: And yes, Trump had tweeted that he’d been elevated. And, in fact, the Chinese told the Americans this: that Trump would be the first foreign leader to visit after the 19th Party Congress. So this was conveyed as a special privilege that they were bestowing upon Trump. I think that they appreciated the fact that the Americans did not insist, for example, on questions at the press conference; that there was this agreement to spend time at the Forbidden City, which, let’s remember…this is a message of the superiority of the 5,000 years of Chinese history. And Xi Jinping’s message of the Chinese Dream, of national rejuvenation emerging from this century of national humiliation and becoming a very strong country, and so he was, I think, treated very much like an equal, the leader of a country that has arrived. I think that’s enormous.

Susan Jakes: Is that here to stay? Was this a turning point?

Bonnie Glaser: Trump believes that flattery gets him something, and so we don’t know what it is that China will deliver on the North Korea piece. The ask was for a cut in crude oil exports. But we will see, with time. Maybe if there is another ICBM test at range, or, God forbid, a hydrogen test in the atmosphere, maybe we will see something like that from China. The Chinese have been debating internally intensely whether to cut oil, by how much, for how long, because most people don’t want to do it in perpetuity. It would be for a limited period of time. On the trade front, I think Xi Jinping just wanted to fend off tariffs and other trade remedies, just as he wanted to fend off pressure on the North Korea front, so what China really wanted out of this was just to get the United States to back away from some of its asks. If President Trump got one thing quickly apparently it was the ask to release the three American athletes who were accused of shoplifting and were detained by the Chinese and apparently were released at the request of the President of the United States. 

Daniel Russel: It would be a mistake to equate deference with respect. Showing respect to a foreign leader is utterly appropriate and I think that is the sine qua non for any American President dealing with a foreign counterpart let alone the President of China. That’s a good thing. Showing deference is a different matter entirely. The prospect of the Chinese taking a step well beyond their comfort zone and really turning the oil spigot down wouldn’t come as the result of flattery, it would come as the result of further misbehavior, threatening behavior by North Korea. So I don’t know that deference, or the sort of ‘Bromance’ approach to Xi Jinping is necessarily going to net the intended outcomes from the Chinese side. But the second point is that the whole world is watching. That there is much more here than just the Chinese audience, which, will only hear what the Ministry of Propaganda and the authorities allow it to hear.

Susan Jakes: We haven’t discussed perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment of the China trip, when Trump said that we had an unfair trade relationship and he said, “I don’t blame China. Who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?” and then he gave them credit and blamed our problems on previous administrations.

Bonnie Glaser: That wasn’t his message in Japan. He blamed the Japanese.

Orville Schell: He was really blaming the Obama administration. In effect, ‘That was then, and you guys took advantage, but now, we got a different relationship and there are different terms of the game.’

Susan Jakes: How do people in the region hear that?

Daniel Russel: I think there are a couple of things at work here. First of all, to the extent that countries in the region hear this who can blame China doing what it has the power to do and getting away from it, combining that with this very heavy emphasis on sovereignty in his speeches including at APAC. His multilateral institutions, his ‘We’re going it alone,’ his ‘America First’—there’s a kind of Hobbesian dog-eat-dog survival-of-the-fittest undertone to that message. That is definitely not what smaller countries that are swimming in China’s orbit want to hear from the world superpower who’s been over the decades the guarantor of the system of the rules that has protected them. Secondly, if there is a perception—and this may well have been what Xi Jinping was trying to signal that the President of the United States is so besotted and so impressed with the glory of the rejuvenated Chinese nation and the beauty and the majesty of the Forbidden City, so taken by the tractor pull of the Chinese market, the chemistry between the two leaders is such that the United States is going to prioritize the U.S.-China relationship at the expense of controversial issues like human rights, like the South China Sea, etc.—then the implication for the countries in the region is that the era of Pax Americana has ended and that the new era with Chinese characteristics and the China Dream may be beginning. And if that’s the case, we need to hedge, we need to move closer, we need to get out of the world, so to speak. And that has tremendous and negative ramifications for U.S. security interests and our broader agenda.

Orville Schell: If there’s any place where there’s going to be tension down the line it’s going to be on trade. This is an incontrovertible fact: the playing field is out of level and there are a lot of very insoluble contradictions that have to be confronted.

Susan Jakes: Today in his remarks, Trump emphasized over and over again this idea of ”fair and reciprocal trade” and then touted this $250 billion or $9 billion or $1 trillion trade deals that he made in China. What might be contained in that $250 billion and how is it meaningful?

Bonnie Glaser: First, I agree with what Orville said earlier. Some of these contracts are likely to be signed anyway—the Chinese buy a certain number of Boeing aircraft. They need new aircraft, they’ve got a lot of people flying, more and more everyday. They buy a lot of American soybeans, corn. There was discussion about a natural gas deal that I don’t think, at the end of the day, has been finalized. But you know some of these things may be solid contracts, others may really be ammo used that we don’t really see realized. But the interesting thing is that we go back to the campaign where the main message of Donald Trump to the American people regarding China, was that China was an unfair trading partner, it had taken advantage of the United States it’s stolen American jobs, it was a currency manipulator and, of course—Day 1—as the President sees it, he was going to declare China a currency manipulator. And many people including the President have continued to talk about what they refer to as China’s predatory trade practices. And there are people in the White House who are doing work investigating the ways in which China is pursuing its economic interests at the expense of the United States. We saw for example Secretary of State Tillerson when he spoke at CSIS about a month ago before the President went to Asia, talking about, for the first time ever, the need to counter China’s Belt and Road strategy, and people talk about the China 2025 manufacturing plan.

Bonnie Glaser: The 2025 plan is essentially to make China the global leader in innovation, the Belt and Road strategy is a knitting of projects around China’s periphery with that really pretty much on infrastructure, where China is providing mostly loans to countries. But the success of these will vary from country to country and, I think, project to project. But it’s Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy strategy and the United States has not really been a player in terms of providing infrastructure in the region. And the Japanese, and India, and now the United States, are talking about working ways that we might provide alternatives. So my point just being that it seems the set of agenda items are taking a back seat, to some extent, to North Korea, although the President still talked about them in China, including in his press availability with Xi Jinping. But I believe we are going to see trade actions, we are going to see something on intellectual property, which is the special 301 investigation that is ongoing, and we might see something on steel overcapacity. The real question is if the administration does that, what will the Chinese do? They are likely to retaliate. Is this a one-time tit-for-tat, or do we see an escalating trade war? I think that’s something to watch in the future going forward.

Orville Schell: And would it throw off North Korea cooperation and things like that?Would it have that spillover effect?

Bonnie Glaser: I tend to think whatever China does on North Korea it does because it serves its own interest and doesn’t do favors, really, for the United States.

Susan Jakes: One of the enduring questions of China policy is how much tension and friction can be injected into one piece of the relationship before it spills over into other areas?

Daniel Russel: Certainly the theory that guided the Obama administration was the conviction that there were going to be areas of cooperation and areas of competition, inevitably, in the relationship, and that we had to deal with them in their own right and not trade off values and priorities as barter for tactical advantage on a given problem. I couldn’t be more withBonnie in that I think it is really a fallacy to think that China is taking actions on North Korea as a favor to the United States. There are huge Chinese equities here and they’re pursuing them. On the issue of the trade deals, whether it’s $9 billion or $250 billion or $1 trillion or a ‘gazillion,’ I think every president tries to scratch that itch. I think Obama, George Bush, Clinton, everybody wanted to have a nice big package of business deals connected with an overseas trip. I think there was higher degree of scrupulousness on the numbers side than one can imagine, certainly in the Obama administration. The things to remember [are] number one, governments don’t make business deals, companies make business deals. Two, after the wash is gone, you know there is a huge discount factor, but that’s always going to be the case. I’m sure there are some big deals in there—this is a big economic relationship—but no transactional dealmaking going to the structural problems that need to be addressed in the U.S.-China economic relationship and none that President Trump’s administration has prioritized. So what I said at the outset, the question you have to ask, looking at what the real outcomes were and what was left on the table, is ‘What was the opportunity cost?’. A trip that is planned to create outcomes that will either come up during the visit or in the aftermath of the visit, begins to address the prejudicial treatment of the U.S. companies in China. The fundamentally unfair issues of market access, etc., the suborning and the appropriation of intellectual property and source codes and so on. That is what is worth working for, that’s worth using the tremendous leverage of this glorious visit and the pomp and circumstance of a state visit with Chinese characteristics. But Mar-a-lago is very much about personal relationship and creating a mood. Now, the Beijing summit similarly was really about feelings and not about outcomes. So if, in fact, as Bonnie suspects, the administration—having had this wonderful love-fest in Beijing—turns to the trade agenda and puts on its brass knuckles and takes a swing at China, I think it’s a given that there will be painful retaliation and that it will do considerable damage to the bilateral relationship romance.Orville Schell: What happened to South Korea when they brought in the THAAD missile defense system? They got punished. I think you’re absolutely right, Danny, if you look at the trip, really what we saw most of was the theater of it. The deliverables? Besides the $250 billion, there really wasn’t anything very tangible. There were things discussed and that were supposed to satiate people’s desire for a sense of some conclusion, some outcome. But actually, there was very little.

Daniel Russel: In fairness, it is really hard to get the Chinese to do the things that we think they ought to do, and that they don’t. It is not easy. So it’s not as if there was a shortcut that could have been taken. I don’t think there are shortcuts in the U.S.-China relationship.

Orville Schell: No, but it’s important to remember this fact because of the President is very much talking about this in terms of being a big success. And I think we have to be mindful that there is a column where the concrete issues have to be there to have a really big success. t wasn’t a failure but the successful part was the theater of it.

Daniel Russel: Well, lowering expectations is, of course. . .

Susan Jakes: The best you can say is that it’s a work in progress.

Daniel Russel: Well, wasn’t it always?

Susan Jakes: But there is also—Day 3 of the administration, when we pulled out of TPP—the idea that eight countries in Asia were going to line up to have bilateral trade agreements with us, and that doesn’t seem to have happened during this trip.

Orville Schell: And that TPP is marching off without us.

Susan Jakes: So how long do you think the United States can be on the sidelines or absent from multilateral trade in the region. Is what we see on the ground irreversible if this goes on another three years or more? Or are there ways that the concerns that other countries in the region have about China would allow us to quickly recover that lost ground, if we had an administration that wanted to?

Bonnie Glaser: My hope is that if TPP goes forward, the economists who crunched the numbers tell us, that the United States will suffer. I don’t remember exactly what the percentage is. But as these agreements are implemented to lower tariffs we may, at the end of the day, benefit from some of the higher environmental and labor standards. But when it comes to the opportunities for increased trade, the United States would not benefit. So my hope is that at some future date there is recognition that, whether it be in this administration or the next one, that we need to join this pact, and I assume that it would be open. Maybe that’s not a correct assumption but I think the 11 countries in the TPP would like to see the United States come back. So maybe that’s too optimistic, but I think that is one possible scenario.

Susan Jakes: Any closing thoughts before I open it to audience?

Orville Schell: I would just say about the trip: you saw both sides of Donald Trump. You saw the side that could act like the kind of president we are used to having when he goes abroad, and then we also saw that the kind of president, by the time he got to the Philippines, who was quite different. But I think you know, the good part of the trip was he did reaffirm the alliances, that’s a critical part of our whole decision in Asia. The trade thing is his baby, this is his big issue, and what he’s going to do about it is still very unclear and we know we’re out of the TPP. So how is he going to have success in negotiating 11 bilateral trade agreements, and what’s he going to do about China? That playing field is just as unlevel today as it was when he went out there.

Susan Jakes: We can begin to open it up for questions. But before we start: Federico Rampini was also on the trip with Orville and Donald Trump and we thought if you wanted to give any of your impressions of the trip we would like you to have the first word.

Federico Rampini: I don’t want to disappoint you, but my impressions were by and large the same as those that were conveyed by Orville. So maybe I would rather start with a question. I was trying to imagine while I was covering this trip, especially in Beijing, together with Orville, sometimes I happen to ask myself, ‘What would Hilary Clinton’s trip at this very moment look like?’ Because I remember that, in the end, she announced she would walk out of the TPP. The rhetoric of the Democrats during the campaign on trade was somehow similar, at least there was the same urgency to rebalance the relationship to China. So I was wondering really, ‘What would Hilary Clinton have done differently on those issues?’

Bonnie, I found very interesting what you said about your expectation that there will be action from this administration on trade. You mentioned intellectual property, and you mentioned steel.

And you, Daniel Russel, you also talked about all this structural issues. How much should WTO rules be repealed, changed, renegotiated? How many of the unfair practices by the Chinese are, in fact, legal under WTO rules? Because when China entered the WTO it was a poor country, it was an emerging country, and they needed a special kind of treatment, some kind of privileges. So this exercise might be interesting. I was constantly wondering, ‘What would Hilary do here?’ Thank you.

Bonnie Glaser: I think if Hillary Clinton had been president and was going to China, she would have had a larger agenda. She would have been talking about not just trade, economics, and North Korea, she would certainly be talking about the South China Sea. I think there would have been a human rights element, the impact of the NGO law, there would be discussion of cyber security. So I think it would be a very broad agenda. I don’t think it would be easy for her administration to make a 180-degree turn on TPP very quickly. I think perhaps by maybe the mid-point of a four-year term, that maybe she would have been able to come up with ways in which maybe the United States could have returned to the TPP. But that’s a question we’ll never know the answer to. I think that there are many people who would have worked inside a Clinton administration who would have wanted to return to the TPP, whereas, you now have an administration that, even though Trump’s position was not that dissimilar,has all these people who are against it, with very few exceptions.

I think you would have seen a more conventional trip; I think that Hilary Clinton would have, for example, demanded, or tried to demand, that there will be more of a public speech or questions at the press conference. Less the ceremony side. Let’s remember that when President Obama met at Sunnylands with Xi Jinping the number of hours that they spent talking about the world, their interests, their domestic agendas and then getting into some of the nitty-gritty stuff. I think that Hilary Clinton would have wanted to talk about all of those things. It would have been more conventional with far less emphasis on the pomp and ceremony. I think there also would have been stress on women and children because that was something that was very important to her.

Susan Jakes: What would have been similar?

Orville Schell: Well, one of the big things would be in the background for Hilary, wouldfirst of all be thatthe Chinese were not very well disposed towards her. One of the reasons is Xi is a representative of China in ways that President Trump is not of America, as a democratic country. That would have been very much a part of the discussion and it would have kept them at a certain distance, whereas they would have had the same kind of a buddy relationship that Trump certainly did with Xi—at least he thinks he did, and at least he manifested it as theater.

Susan Jakes: Maybe we can now take some questions from the audience. Yay! So many! Right here, Ambassador Lord.

Winston Lord: Terrific. Let me ask the macro question. As a result of the trip have we shored up our position in Asia under this administration or are we leaving the field to China? I could elaborate, but I think you know the subtext that I am talking about.

Daniel Russel: It’s great to see you, Winston. That’s a tough question, and I don’t know that the answer is immediately available. But I do think that there is strong case to be made that the flashbang of what I called ‘diplotainment’—the sort of exciting trip, the gold vases, and, you know, the cheering crowds—masks a strategic uncertainty in the region about the dependability of the United States over the long term. The country is in the region, as you know as well as anybody, and we don’t want to see the emergence of a cold war between the United States and China, but they definitely want the Seventh Fleet to continue to operate in all the waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. They want the United States to be stalwart as an ally and as a partner, not just make nice when visiting Tokyo or Seoul, but also to stand tough when contesting areas of fundamental disagreement with the Chinese, including on things like the South China Sea and the treatment of smaller and more vulnerable neighbors. The country is in the region and we don’t want to see a trade war between the United States and China. But they don’t want to see academic coercion; they don’t want to be reduced to the status of a tributary state. They don’t want to be on the receiving end of the kind of punishment that Korea’s Lotte was, or that the Philippines was in the Aquino government, or that Japan was over rare-earths. They want to have a hedge against Chinese exceptionalism, this notion that the rules apply equally but some people are more equal than others. And the region doesn’t want the United States on a moral Judeo-Christian crusade either. But they do want the United States to stand up for the values that have shaped and informed not only our democratic societies, but also the post-war order. The notion that the freedoms are universal and they can’t be blocked at the border—that sovereignty doesn’t extend to free speech, to practices of religion, or, for that matter, to the digital world, the digital economy where  people can get rich and can become successful, can educate their children, and can, at the same time, be able to pursue and express their political views without fear of having it all taken away from them.

So, the simple point is that the region wants it both ways. They want China to continue to grow, to remain stable and to be the huge market and the economic driver that it has become. But they also want the United States there as a countervailing force, to the extent that the courtesies extended to our allies are not seen as superficial; and to the extent that the President of the United States is perceived in the region as having come under the thrall of this glorious Chinese hospitality, which, as you know, is a very powerful force.

But I think Trump is perceived as being naive in thinking that the good chemistry and warm personal relationship that he felt towards Xi Jinping would translate into good behavior. If, in fact, that is the perception, then there are a lot of troubling polls out there, but they are not definitive. If that is the perception then I think that it would be the case that the strategic balance could be shifting. But it is not written in stone and the influence that many of our foreign counterparts and fellow democracies have on the U.S., and specifically on president Trump, is a positive factor.

Also, the simple fact remains that while the President and the occupant of the White House will change after the election, their priorities and their style will change, fundamental U.S. national interests are pretty constant. And there are many instances already where you can see the Trump administration being pulled back towards what is mainstream policy.

Susan Jakes: Young woman in the black turtleneck

Asuka Burke: My name is Asuka Burke, I work for the Schiller Institute and Lyndon Larouche. First comment: I really didn’t appreciate some of the condescending statements made on our president, but my question is this: I think that the $300 billion trade deal that President Trump secured is just the beginning, and I think one of the major achievements of this trip is that it created the potential for even larger economic cooperation between the U.S. and China in the future. For example, the United States joining AIIB, or OBOR, the One Belt One Road policy. And I disagree with some of the ideas that One Belt One Road is another geostrategic policy that can only benefit China. I hear this a lot, but if you look at some of the credit that has been issued—some of the loans that have been issued—it’s going to Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Greece, Nigeria, Egypt, and these nations already are getting a prospect of having high-speed rail in their country. If you look at recent trade deal that was made between China and West Virginia—everybody in this room knows that West Virginia is the center of the opioid epidemic, and China is investing huge amount.They’re going to invest more than the GDP of that state. That’s a great deal and if we don’t welcome this, I think it will show to the world how cynical we’ve become as a country. So, what do you think about the prospect of the United States joining One Belt One Road on an equal basis?

Bonnie Glaser: I think you may have mischaracterized some of what I said, but you made some very good points. Personally, I don’t think that the United States as a country should join One Belt One Road, but I think American companies should have the opportunity. At CSIS, we have had some meetings with the Chinese and representatives of American companies who are very interested in investing in the Belt and Road initiative. I don’t think we need to sign an MOU, and frankly, in order to join you have to give money and I don’t think our Congress is going to be giving resources to our joining this. But, that said, I think it’s up to every individual country whether they want to join but they need to understand the terms of this, and there is a risk of growing debt that will never be repaid, for example, that I think it not really in the interests of some of these countries. That said, there is an infrastructure need but there are also many different ways of financing it. As far as investment in West Virginia, or anywhere in the United States, I think we should be open to foreign investment, but the CFIUS process needs to be updated. It is essentially focused on the acquisition of companies. It hasn’t, for example, included greenfield investments. Yesterday at CSISSenator Cornyn gave a speech because he has written legislation with about 20 bipartisan senators in Congress to update the CFIUS procedures. There are some investments that I think we have to be careful about having the Chinese, or really any country, invest in. We have to have our own understanding of how we protect ourselves. But there are a lot of areas...we are the most open country in the world to investment. The problem is that China is closed in so many sectors, to investment, and it’s not just from the United States. No matter how many goods the Chinese buy from us, it’s not going to solve the problem of demanding, requiring that a foreign country transfer technology in order to invest in China. This is a company’s intellectual property that they are being compelled to transfer. I’m not a trade lawyer, but that goes back to the question earlier about whether this is consistent with WTO rules. There needs to be recognition of the fact that China pursues practices that other countries don’t. So, there is an uneven playing field, in fact. There are many things about the U.S.-China economic relationship that are very, very positive. It is an interdependent relationship. The AIIB—counties can join if they want to. I think it was a mistake that the Obama administration in some cases twisted the arms of other counties and discouraged them from joining. But whether or not we should join, it’s something that should be left open to consideration. I don’t think it would necessarily be against our interests. There are other ways that we need to work in the region to promote economic cooperation and provide infrastructure and other advantages to like-minded countries to work with us countries, frankly, to work with us. So, some good points but probably we have some differences also, as well.

Susan Jakes: Yes, right there.

Eric Hundman: Thank you all for a very interesting panel. My name is Eric Hundman. I’m with NYU Shanghai. I wanted ask what the panel’s thoughts were about whether Taiwan got what it hoped to see out of this particular meeting. I had heard from several places that they essentially wanted to stay as low on the agenda as possible in this meeting. There were some reports of Xi mentioning the issue directly to Trump. I was wondering how you read those reports or if you have any other comments on that particular question?

Daniel Russel: It’s inconceivable that President Xi would not raise Taiwan. I saw fairly defensive sounding statement in Xinhua, saying he’d said, “This is the most important issue in U.S.-China relations,” etc., and there are very conventional set-pieces that one typically hears from a Chinese leader in a bilateral summit. I was in Taiwan during the 19th Party Congress and in the run-up to the visit by President Trump to China and I found [people] anxious, in part because I think they worried that as a newcomer to office and a newcomer to foreign policy and these issues, that President Trump, who, you’ll remember, cast real doubt on the One China Policy—a central tenet of U.S. policy towards China and towards Taiwan—that he would be insufficiently alert to the implications of something that the Chinese wanted him to agree to and he would, perhaps, fall into some trap that would undermine their interests. I haven’t spoken to any of the representatives of Taiwan since the President was in China but I assume that they breathed a sigh of relief. President Xi met with James Soong, the representative of Chinese Taipei at APEC, and that wouldn’t have happened if there had been a big problem during President Trump’s visit. So, I’m assuming that all is as well as it was before the visit, which is not saying a whole lot.

Orville Schell: It was interesting, in the Great Hall of the People, at the so-called press briefing—where there were no questions though there were 150 members of the press there—one woman stood up as they walked out said, “Well, what about Taiwan?” Of course, there was no answer.

Susan Jakes: All the way in the very back.

Cole: Hi, my name is Cole, from the Foreign Policy Association. So, I’m wondering about the relationships between Chinese and U.S. officials beneath Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. In the past, we saw in the Obama administration, the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Can you talk about the working relationships that talk through these structural differences that need to occur in the coming years in work beneath Xi Jinping and Donald Trump?

Bonnie Glaser: I would just start by saying that the Trump administration, at Mar-a-Lago—when they held their first summit with Xi Jinping—decided to reorganize the dialogues between the United States and China and create four new dialogue mechanisms and hold them each separately, and not hold them once a year, necessarily, which is what the Obama administration had done with the Strategic and Economic Dialogue.  I think, probably, that a lot of the same issues are likely being talked about: the first one was the diplomatic and security dialogue. I think they spent about two-thirds of the time on North Korea. It’s a bit more narrowly focused thanthose sets of issues were under prior administrations. And then there’s the comprehensive economic dialogue; and then there’s the cyber security law enforcement dialogue; and the last one is social, cultural and people-to-people dialogue. So, all of these things really existed, just in different forms. And they’re all headed by different levels of people. The Trump administration likes to say that they’re headed by the highest level, but that, of course, is really, in a sense, not true. It varies. In fact, Secretary Tillerson is now head of this people-to-people dialogue, whereas previously it was Vice President Biden, so, that one is actually not at as high a level. But the real question is whether these mechanisms are making significant headway. From what I’ve heard from people in the Trump administration, they were not satisfied with the progress that was made, particularly on North Korea and the trade and economic issues. I think the hope was that through strengthening the relationship between President Trump and Xi Jinping they would more progress in the future.

Susan Jakes: Okay, one more question.

Robert Delaney: Thank you. Robert Delaney from The South China Morning Post. I had a quick question about the speech that President Trump made this afternoon. He seemed to hit all of the sore points with regard to China in that he talked about an agreement with South Korea that there should be an expansion of missile defenses, that he was adamantly against the freeze-for-freeze framework, and he talked about commitments he made with Australia and India and Japan in terms of freedom of navigation. Those are the ones that I’m thinking of right now...it seemed for him to hit all those...oh, and he also mentioned—he seemed to suggest—that trade action is coming. He did say that trade action was coming against countries that are following unfair trade practices. I’m just wondering your thoughts on why he would hit all those points as strongly as he did at the end of this meeting. Is there a feeling that this just simply is playing to the domestic audience? Or maybe he’s pushing back on the ideas in the press that maybe he didn’t get enough out of the trip?

Orville Schell: I get a distinct sense from talking to some people in the White House that they have an array of things that they are going to roll out, particularly on the trade front. It remains to be seen on what other fronts. I think Xi Jinping and Trump were trying to have their ‘bromance’ relationship at the top, and that ultimately, there will be whatever kind of praxis at the bottom. We have to remember there is a very strong tradition in the Trump administration of seeing China, if not as the enemy, at least as a serious challenger that needs to be confronted:Bannon, Peter Navarro, and there are others. Those people, that sentiment is still circulating around someplace. Whether that will actually work out to be the case, it’s very hard to say, but it wouln’t surprise me. They really do have to do something, at least about trade.

Susan Jakes: We have time for one more.

Woman in the Audience: Well, Orville, given that Trump either hates or loves people, I would think we would be happy that he feels that he’s in a ‘bromance’ with Xi. I also think it will give him the confidence, now that he’s back, and thinking over how much he likes the guy. I just came back from China, too. —The young Chinese people who I work with, on U.S. college admissions, they thought all of that went very well, if they think about it at all. They’re not too big into politics. Don’t you think that now he feels the confidence, because of that relationship, and that he wasn’t slapped down, that he can start working on the whole trade balance? Because I thought that was the first thing he wanted: balance of trade.

Orville Schell: Well, that would be the best scenario, wouldn’t it? That’s why I asked my two colleagues what deference is worth. I think he’s built up a certain capital account now in the personal relationship count, and it remains to be seen if he can draw that down and what it’s actually worth. You two know better than I can how these things work? What’s it going to get him? What was this whole trip worth?

Daniel Russel: It may be true in real estate, but I don’t believe that in international economics, or in national security matters, that a reservoir of personal good will is going to translate into significant concessions.

—This program was transcribed by Anna Lee Perez and Jingyu Wan.