Choosing a winner is not easy when the fact-resistant Twitter-fan without impulse control meets the leader of the world’s biggest communist dictatorship. It is still fundamentally important that the presidents of the U.S. and China meet. The two countries must have a relationship. However, no one should expect that Donald Trump and Xi Jinping will make any breakthroughs in Florida.
Just because they have some mutual interests does not mean that they share a common goal. Trump’s slogan, “America first,” has its mirror image in Xi’s subtler “China first” approach. Both play primarily for the home crowd.
North Korea is currently at the top of Trump’s ever-changing agenda. He has demanded quick Chinese intervention against Kim Jong-un’s threat, that was this week accentuated by yet another missile test. Traditional allies such as Japan and South Korea are within firing range. In addition, no one knows how far away North Korea is from being able to send an atom bomb to California. “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” Trump has said.
China is also irritated and can exert some pressure. North Korea is dependent on deliveries of fuel and food; as much as 90 percent of their trade is with China. Xi and Trump could come up with a mutual list of demands, including a stop to missile and nuclear tests and the dismantling of facilities, in return for guarantees against attempts to overthrow the Pyongyang regime, humanitarian aid, etc.
China has their own reasons why they may agree to UN sanctions, but not in such a way as to suffocate the North Korean economy. If their neighboring state collapses, the Chinese fear a wave of refugees, as well as American troops on their border. However, there is another not insignificant consideration; Kim Jong-un does not want to negotiate, as he sees nuclear weapons as his life insurance. What China can deliver is therefore highly uncertain. An American military action would also be extremely dangerous.
The experienced property tycoon in Trump may be considering a trade; If Xi solves the North Korea problem, he could get free reign of the South China Sea. China considers both the South China Sea and the East China Sea as Chinese property, continuously harassing its neighbors and marking its territory with artificial islands.
In theory, there are solutions. China should come to an agreement with the other coastal nations, including Japan and South Korea, as well as the Philippines and Vietnam, as to how fishing and natural resources should be split. Meanwhile, waterways must be kept clear for shipping. Potential disagreements will be settled in the International Tribunal for the Law of Sea. However, this is not what China wants, as they see it well within their rights to write the rules for the region. So far, Trump has not been particularly interested in either allied countries or any other Asian countries who are at the mercy of China’s power.
Signals from the Trump administration concerning the South China Sea have been conflicting. The president himself has raised confusion about Taiwan, which China considers theirs. At the same time, the U.S. is putting in place the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea; this is the beginning of a shield against North Korea’s nuclear threat. China is against anything that may limit its freedom of movement, and has punished South Korea with trade embargoes while keeping a more restrained tone with the U.S.
East Asia is complicated, and Trump is a foreign policy novice without respect for experts in the area. This makes the future difficult to predict. Dormant economic conflicts complicate the situation further.
During the election campaign Trump aimed old accusations at China, suggesting that they kept the value of their currency down deliberately to benefit exports. He threatened high duties to eliminate the American trade deficit. This would result in retaliation, hit international shipping networks and create job losses both in the U.S. and China.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement was Barack Obama’s project, aimed at bringing Asian friends closer and establishing principles that even China would have to abide by. Trump pulled out. It would have been better to follow through with TPP, and invite China to take part, for everyone’s mutual benefit.
If there is any consistency in Trump’s political message, it is protectionism. China is hardly the champion of free trade either, providing benefits to state-owned companies and putting up trade barriers for foreign ones. A trade war between the countries would, in any scenario, have dire consequences for the entire world.
Cooperation between the U.S. and China concerning economies, climate and many other areas, would on the other hand benefit all. It would surely also reduce the risk of other types of conflicts. However, to believe that both countries would put the “world first” at this point seems naive.