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Xi-Trump summit presents a positive way forward

The omens going into the much-anticipated summit last week between presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping were ominous.

The friendly optics from Mr Xi’s visit to Florida to meet Mr Trump would also have been well received in the region. Photo: Reuters

The friendly optics from Mr Xi’s visit to Florida to meet Mr Trump would also have been well received in the region. Photo: Reuters

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The omens going into the much-anticipated summit last week between presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping were ominous.

A week before the summit in Florida, Mr Trump laid down a marker for his counterpart by tweeting that the meeting “will be a very difficult one in that (the United States) can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses”.

China was eager to avoid any contentious outcomes that could dampen preparations for the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party due later this year, one in which Mr Xi is expected to cruise to re-election and oversee major changes to the composition of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee.

The summit can be seen as a win-win for both sides.

From the Chinese perspective, Mr Xi’s handlers would have been delighted with the respect shown to the leader of 1.3 billion Chinese citizens. Mr Trump’s deployment of his grandchildren Arabella and Joseph was a masterstroke. The two children of Trump powerbrokers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump not only warmed the hearts of Mr Xi and Madam Peng Liyuan with their rendition of the traditional Chinese song Mo Li Hua and recitation of the Three Characters poem, but also endeared themselves to countless Chinese citizens. Who needs golf when you have such charming grandkids as your trump card?

China’s concerns that the summit would turn bloody, given Mr Trump’s stated determination to exact his pound of Chinese flesh for the US$347 billion (S$487 billion) trade surplus in favour of China, was temporarily swept under the carpet with both sides agreeing to a “100-day trade plan” to address this divisive issue.

This initiative bought China more time to work through this vexing problem. The uncharacteristically short deadline for the talks signals China’s seriousness and intent for tangible results.

The reason for China’s concession was not entirely altruistic. US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross shared that Chinese officials have “expressed an interest in reducing (China’s) net trade balance because of the impact it is having on money supply and inflation”. In other words, China agrees to reduce its trade surplus with the US because it is in China’s interests to do so.

However, these positive overtures may turn sour if Mr Trump proceeds to sign an executive order targeting excess steel dumping, as he is expected to do in the coming days. This move is seen as the first salvo against what Washington sees as unfair Chinese trade practices. The gloves may come off once the ink on the executive order dries, which would give added impetus and importance to the “100-day trade plan” negotiations.

On the strategic front, Mr Xi and his advisers must have been taken by surprise by Mr Trump’s decisive move against Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, which was instructive in two respects.

First, by ordering the airstrikes, Mr Trump is putting the world on notice that the US carries a big stick and will not hesitate to use it if the strategic situation requires it. In other words, Mr Trump is eager to remind the world that the US will walk the talk.

Second, even if the Syrian strike was not intended to send a message to North Korea, it would certainly be read in Pyongyang as such. Mr Trump’s statement that “if China is not going to solve (the North Korean nuclear issue), we will” raises the possibility of stronger and more robust responses from Washington.

Pyongyang’s attempts to acquire inter-continental ballistic missile capability that could be used to threaten the US with nuclear attacks would register higher on Washington’s national security threat barometer than the Syrian conflict. This point would not be lost on Beijing, which would have to tread carefully between propping up a regime that has for all practical purposes become increasingly less amenable to taking “advice” from Beijing and convincing Washington against taking any military action.

The summit also announced a new framework to anchor high-level discussions on strategic issues. The newly-established Comprehensive Dialogue covers four pillars: Diplomatic and security; economic; law enforcement and cybersecurity; and social and cultural. The new dialogue will be overseen by the two presidents, a move that will give the processes more clout and help to expedite decision-making.

The new format is an astute move on the part of Mr Trump by getting Mr Xi’s buy-in as a way to overcome China’s infamous bureaucratic inertia. It also gives Mr Trump direct control over these talks, a sign of the importance he plays in US-China relations. The positive outcomes of the summit could be easily overshadowed by the Syrian air strike.

For a start, the 100-day trade plan and the Comprehensive Strategic Dialogue provide an institutionalised framework for both countries to move forward in tackling bilateral concerns. The good chemistry between the two leaders will set the tone for ministers and officials in resolving outstanding issues. Mr Xi’s invitation to visit China, which Mr Trump accepted, will also provide another opportunity for both leaders to monitor progress between now and the next summit, giving little time for both sides to be complacent.

Overall, the friendly optics from the summit will be well received in the region. For the moment, a trade war between the two Pacific powers has been averted. Even though the South China Sea was discussed at the summit, the “agreeing to disagree” outcome means that a clash in the disputed waters is not on the cards in the near term.

South-east Asia could count itself as a “winner” in the summit sweepstakes as a net beneficiary of good relations between China and the US. One can only hope that the Trump-Xi honeymoon will endure.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Tang Siew Mun is Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

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