When Donald Trump hosted Xi Jinping at his private club Mar-a-Lago in April, the American president informed his Chinese counterpart—over “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake,” as Trump told reporters later—that he had ordered a missile attack against Syria.
Like that, the first Trump-Xi summit was overshadowed by the Syria strikes. Syria isn’t central to US-China relations, but by design or otherwise, the way Trump looped Xi in on such an important geopolitical development suggested he was the one in control.
When the two leaders meet again this week in Beijing, in the middle of Trump’s 11-day Asian tour, it will be difficult for the US president to come across as the more dominant one. Since their last encounter, Xi’s domestic position has grown stronger, while Trump’s has weakened. Xi consolidated his power at the recently concluded Communist Party congress, while Trump, amid investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, failed to push through promised changes on health care and now faces a fresh battle on tax reform.
At the top of the agenda for the second Trump-Xi summit is, still, North Korea and trade—two items that, in Trump’s view, can be leveraged against each other. But the rogue regime of Kim Jong-un has become even more belligerent, conducting one nuclear and 12 missile tests since Trump and Xi met in April. Needing Beijing’s help to rein in Pyongyang, Trump, despite his threats, has yet to impose any major punitive measures against China over the alleged unfair trade practices he railed against while campaigning last year.
It’s easier to see how Xi comes out a winner from the pair’s second meeting. “Xi would be fine having a symbolism-heavy, substance-light visit, largely because he does not want or need a lot from Trump, and is broadly comfortable with the relationship as it currently stands,” wrote Ryan Hass, a foreign-policy expert at the Brookings Institution, in late October.
Below, some of the ways Xi can emerge from Trump’s visit victorious.
Keep Trump full, flattered, and fatigued
China will welcome Trump with a lavish reception, including a military honor guard and a formal banquet, according to Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the US. Touting a “state visit-plus” experience, Cui said there will also be some “special arrangements” for Trump, without elaborating further.
“Trump is a president who loves to be flattered—and the Chinese know how to flatter,” wrote David Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Lampton pointed to a visit to China in the 1940s by US president Franklin Roosevelt’s special envoy Wendell Willkie. According to an account by American general Joseph Stilwell, then Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek dragged Willkie around to see and hear only what his hosts wanted him to, including factories, girl scouts, and sewing circles. The idea, Stilwell wrote, was to “get him so exhausted and keep him so torpid with food and drink that his faculties will be dulled and he’ll be stuffed with the right doctrines.”
Xi will return the favor. (Reuters/Carlos Barria)
Lavish proceedings seemed to work out for Saudi Arabia when it hosted Trump in May on his first overseas trip as president. Trump was all smiles in the gulf kingdom while receiving gold jewelry and playing with swords.
A packed schedule of extravagant yet tedious events would also test Trump’s stamina: At 71, he is past the Communist Party’s standard retirement age of 68.
Dodge North Korea trouble
This year North Korea has annoyed Xi repeatedly with the timing of its weapons tests. Xi doesn’t want the same thing happening this week.
Pyongyang launched a missile just days before the first Trump-Xi summit, and it fired another in mid-May right as Xi was about to tout his pet project, the Belt and Road initiative, to dozens of world leaders gathered in Beijing. In September Pyongyang conducted its latest and most powerful nuclear test just as Xi was about to deliver the opening remarks for the BRICS summit in southeast China. And as Trump headed toward Asia for the current trip, South Korea’s intelligence agency reported brisk activity at missile research facilities in North Korea.
In this context, Xi will be delighted if North Korea simply refrains from conducting a weapons test during Trump’s visit. Pyongyang did forgo a chance to interrupt the Communist Party congress—the most important event on China’s political calendar—and Kim even sent a note congratulating Xi on his re-election as party chief. Xi in turn sent Kim a note calling for stable ties between the two nations.
Trump has called on China to apply more economic pressure against North Korea, but he’s also offered praise when it’s done so. Xi will be hoping for more of the latter. China recently released data showing its trade with North Korea has fallen significantly, coming after Beijing followed through on UN sanctions.
What Xi doesn’t want is Trump pressing him for sanctions that won’t serve China’s interests—for example, an outright oil embargo that could destabilize the Kim regime to the point of sparking a refugee crisis at China’s border.
Avoid trade issues but give Trump deals to tout
Trump will want some business wins to brag about back home. According to Bloomberg, one of the biggest deals to be announced will be a multibillion-dollar energy investment from China’s state-owned oil giant Sinopec creating thousands of jobs in Texas and the US Virgin Islands. The project, expected to be in the form of a non-binding memorandum of understanding, would include a pipeline running about 700 miles (1,126 km) across Texas.
As welcome as such one-off business deals are, Lampton noted, “they don’t move the overall economic relationship in a direction favourable to US interests or the goals Trump set for his own political base.”
Trump remains unhappy about US-China trade in general and views China as being engaged in all sorts of unfair practices, among them dumping commodities like aluminum and stealing intellectual property. He’s ordered probes into China’s IP practices and exports of steel and aluminum to the US, but so far no investigation results have been announced.
US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross told reporters a few weeks ago that the two sides will probably announce some “decent deliverables” at the Trump-Xi summit, but it will take longer to fix complex issues such as IP and forced technology transfer.
While Xi will deny Trump the big concessions he craves on trade and North Korea, he won’t let him go home “totally empty-handed,” wrote Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, in a Nikkei column last week. The most likely outcome of the summit, Pei believes, is “a series of specific agreements between Chinese and American companies that will allow Trump to claim new job opportunities for his blue-collar voters.”
Steer clear of the South China Sea
Amid all the hand-wringing over North Korea, Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea has received less attention than merited. In his April meeting with Xi, Trump merely urged China to follow international norms in its maritime disputes with regional neighbors.
At that time, he had yet to approve a freedom-of-navigation operation challenging China’s claims in the vital waterway, which carries a large chunk of world trade but, some fear, could essentially become a “Chinese lake.” In May, however, a US warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, a feature naturally submerged at high tide but now hosting a Chinese military base. The close passage, coupled with a “maneuvering drill,” signaled the US does not recognize Mischief as generating a territorial sea. More operations near other Chinese outposts have followed since—including in July, August, and October—all challenging what Washington views as China’s excessive maritime claims.
Nothing to see here: Mischief Reef. (CSIS/AMTI/DigitalGlobe)
China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, even though an international tribunal ruled last year that the claim had neither legal nor historical basis. Beijing dismissed the ruling and routinely warns the US against the operations, saying in July, for instance, that it was “firmly opposed to such flaunting of force and promotion of militarization in the region by the US, which could easily trigger accidents at sea and in the air.”
Beijing has warned the US to not bring up the South China Sea issue when Trump visits. It’ll be a win for Xi if Trump doesn’t, or if he at least keeps any reference to it generic, as he did in April.
Use the visit for a PR win
Much planning has no doubt gone into how Trump’s visit will be portrayed in China’s state-controlled media. While Beijing’s propaganda machine was relatively muted during Xi’s trip to Florida, presumably due to uncertainty over how the trip would unfold, it will be at full speed this week trying to portray Xi as the more sophisticated leader and emphasizing any show of respect from Trump toward Xi.
One big story, with a note about the congratulations from Trump in the top right. (Screenshots)
After Xi was re-elected Communist Party chief at the recent national congress, nearly every front page in China looked the same, all emphasizing Xi’s powerful position. Many front pages also included another crucial indication of Xi’s status: the news that US president Donald Trump called Xi to congratulate him on his re-election. Similarly, this week we can expect to see any compliments, deference, or friendliness from Trump toward Xi played up prominently in Chinese media.
At the same time, Xi will want to appear stronger than Trump wherever possible. Comments he makes to subtly one-up his guest will likely be emphasized—for example, Xi championing global trade and warning against protectionism as the “America-first” president looks on.