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When Chinese President Xi Jinping set out to visit U.S. President Donald Trump in Florida last week, the meeting’s potential for drama was clear. During Trump’s campaign for the presidency, he accused China of economically exploiting the United States. As president-elect, he suggested that his administration would call into question the United States’ “one China” policy toward Taiwan—a long-standing pillar of the relationship between Beijing and Washington. (Trump later reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to the policy at Xi’s request.) And just before the summit, Trump remained critical of Beijing, writing on Twitter that he expected a “very difficult” meeting and telling reporters en route to Florida that China had treated the United States “unfairly.”
Considering this backdrop, the first U.S.–Chinese presidential meeting of the Trump administration went remarkably smoothly. There were no major blunders in protocol, and Trump even mustered some self-effacing humor, saying that he’d “gotten nothing, absolutely nothing” out of Xi at a dinner early in their talks. The friendly atmosphere and lack of speed bumps, however, doesn’t mean that the meeting produced major progress. Thanks in part to the Trump administration’s lack of preparation, the summit accomplished little aside from allowing the two leaders and their teams to get acquainted. Although the meeting did produce three notable outcomes—related to trade, the structure of bilateral diplomacy, and North Korea—those results did little to move bilateral ties forward and may have entrenched distrust between the two sides over North Korea.
The first notable outcome from last week’s meeting came in the realm of U.S.–Chinese economic relations. On Friday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told reporters that the two countries had agreed to a “100-day plan” of talks on trade issues. Although the Trump administration’s priorities are to increase U.S. exports to China and reduce the U.S. trade deficit, it’s not clear what the scope of the new talks will be, and no concrete deals were announced. In effect, China and the United States agreed to seek further agreement.
Even if Washington eventually manages to increase U.S. exports and balance bilateral trade, however, this would address only a fraction of the two countries’ economic concerns. Neither outcome, for example, would help U.S. firms secure significantly better access to China’s markets in long-restricted areas, such as financial services, or in increasingly restricted sectors, such as information technology infrastructure. Nor would balancing trade necessarily address Beijing’s goals of easing the limits on technology transfer from the United States and of reducing the restrictions Washington has at times imposed on Chinese investments in the United States in the name of national security. More broadly, although leveling the trade balance would help Trump fulfill some campaign promises and might benefit some U.S. exporters, there has been little sign that such a plan is part of a broader vision for stable economic ties between China and the United States.
Next, the two governments agreed to establish a new U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue, a bilateral forum that will replace the Strategic and Economic Dialogue—the annual summit on U.S.-Chinese priorities that has involved hundreds of officials but has produced few breakthroughs in recent years. The Comprehensive Dialogue, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced, will involve four “pillars,” or tracks: one on diplomatic and security concerns, one on economic matters, one on law enforcement and cybersecurity, and one on social and cultural issues.
Assessing this new approach will take time, but it is already clear that the four pillars have the potential to artificially separate related issues and push some important matters off the bilateral agenda. If Chinese and U.S officials discuss cybersecurity alongside law enforcement, for instance, will military and strategic cybersecurity issues get the attention they deserve? What will happen to the bilateral mechanisms that already exist, such as the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, which has produced some of the most concrete recent advances in U.S-Chinese economic ties? Will the new dialogue devote special attention to human-rights issues, or will they instead be “embedded in every discussion”—a phrase that Tillerson used to describe Trump’s meetings with Xi, implying that human rights weren’t directly addressed in a significant way? Especially in light of the reports that the four pillars were a Chinese proposal, U.S. officials should remember that setting the agenda can determine whether talks advance U.S. interests or give Chinese officials the chance to stall while problems grow or fester.
It was the Florida meeting’s third major outcome that drew the most attention in the United States. At a dinner on Thursday evening, Trump told Xi that the United States had just fired cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. China’s usual opposition to interventionism aside, it is safe to say that Xi was not pleased by the timing of the news. The problem was not the competition for news coverage that the strikes created—the Chinese press, unlike the U.S. media, did not suggest that the strikes had overshadowed Xi’s visit—but the fact that Xi was caught off guard, and relatively publicly. The Chinese government has long sought to avoid surprises in its dealings with the United States, because it can make stronger policy when its leaders have time to coordinate and since surprises can create political pressure for dramatic responses. If Chinese officials had grown hopeful that they could depend on the Trump administration to act more predictably in the weeks since the president’s reversal on the one China policy, and if they had begun to believe Trump and Xi were planting a seed of trust at their meeting, their expectations were dashed.
So far, the Trump administration has neither devoted much official attention to the region as a whole nor developed a coherent plan for how to approach it.
It’s possible that the United States decided to strike Syria during Trump’s dinner with Xi in part to show China that it would not hesitate to act unilaterally against North Korea. If that was the administration’s intention, its choice was misguided. The strike against Syria did not add weight to Trump’s implied threats against Pyongyang, since Trump had not threatened Syria before the chemical attack that triggered the U.S. action: only after the attack did Trump say that Assad had “crosse[d] many, many lines.” What’s more, for Trump to have signaled that he would follow through on his warnings to North Korea, he would first need to have made those warnings clear, and, so far, his administration has not done so. On the same day that Trump said that the United States would “solve North Korea” if China did not, for example, his ambassador to the United Nations told ABC that China was “the only country that could stop North Korea.” Finally, North Korea’s recent provocations are not comparable to Assad’s use of poison gas: although Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests are alarming, they still represent the development of a weapon—not the use of one. North Korean and Chinese officials surely know that the relatively strong international support Trump received for the strike in Syria would not be present in the case of a preemptive attack against North Korea.
Trump may have demonstrated to Chinese officials that he can use force without warning and that he can quickly change his mind about when to do so. This may keep China on its toes—it recalls a form of deterrence thinking from the Richard Nixon era known as the madman theory—but it will not help the Trump administration coax Beijing into further pressuring North Korea to curb its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Indeed, together with the United States’ decision to send an aircraft carrier group toward North Korea over the weekend, the Syria strikes may signal Washington’s turn away from the belief that sanctions will solve its problems with North Korea. By surprising Xi at dinner and by turning up the military pressure in the region, Trump has made it harder for the United States and China to manage their interests on the Korean Peninsula in a coordinated way.
One reason why last week’s meetings produced so few substantive outcomes was that the Trump administration was not adequately prepared to get into detailed policy discussions. At the State Department, for instance, the administration has not yet chosen its nominees for key positions, such as deputy secretary or assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs. If the Trump administration had staffed up and developed a more comprehensive vision for the Asia-Pacific, it could have used last week’s meetings to at least begin discussing a wider range of issues—from the South China Sea and counterterrorism to bilateral investment and global public health—and to frame those discussions in a way that reflected U.S. priorities.
The Trump administration has so far missed an opportunity to move forward with something that the administration of former President Barack Obama started but never fully realized—the development of a new policy toward the Asia-Pacific that accounts for both China’s increased power and U.S. interests and alliances in the region. Obama’s “rebalance” or “pivot” to Asia was only partially successful: although the United States redirected top political attention to Asia, it never followed through with a forward-looking vision for its position there, instead choosing to defend the region’s status quo. So far, the Trump administration has neither devoted much official attention to the region as a whole nor developed a coherent plan for how to approach it. If it does, future meetings between Trump and Xi will involve a lot more substance.