What China Wants From Trump

Why Beijing Will Avoid Real Compromise on Trade and North Korea

Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a dinner at the start of their summit at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, April 2017. Carlos Barria / REUTERS

When U.S. President Donald Trump lands in Beijing this week, he will find a Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the apex of his own political power and contemplating a status quo in Asia increasingly tilted in China’s favor. In most Asian capitals, as in Washington, Trump’s arrival in the region for an 11-day trip has prompted acute anxiety about what he might say or do. This is especially true regarding trade issues and North Korea, the two focal points of the U.S. administration’s still-nascent Asia policy. But in Beijing, Xi and the rest of the Chinese leadership can be more sanguine: since last November, China has succeeded in appearing to more and more of Asia as the steady, stable great power alongside an unpredictable and undependable United States.

That means that when Trump begins his first state visit to China on Wednesday—arguably the highest-stakes stop on his regional tour—Xi will hold not just the usual home-court advantage but also asymmetric advantages on the key issues the two leaders will discuss. Trump seeks significant changes in areas of Chinese national interest, but Beijing need only protect a status quo on trade and on North Korea that it sees as largely advantageous. To make matters worse, Trump’s China and Asia strategies remain muddled because of competing factions within his administration and his tenuous domestic position. Xi, accordingly, will seek to manage Trump, giving him a lavish welcome in China but few policy wins of any lasting significance—while capitalizing on a growing regional perception that an inexorable power transition is occurring, with a United States in terminal decline and all the key trends working in China’s favor.


In late October, China concluded its 19th Party Congress, a major leadership milestone that left Xi in a historically strong position. His name and philosophy were enshrined in the party constitution, raising him to the level of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and

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