A False Start for Trump and Xi

The Meaning of the Mar-a-Lago Meeting

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida, April 2017. Carlos Barria / Reuters

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

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