The Trump-Xi Summit Was a Showdown That Wasn’t

Apr 10, 2017

It's been another wild week in Trumpworld. On Tuesday Trump banished Stephen Bannon, mastermind of his campaign victory, from the National Security Council. On Thursday, he ordered air strikes on Syria, reversing his long-standing opposition to entangling the United States in conflicts in the Middle East. But the big stunner came on Friday, when Trump’s much-touted face-off with Chinese president Xi Jinping mostly fizzled, ending in warm declarations of good will and mutual respect—but little more.

What a let-down! For weeks global pundits had stoked expectations that the world’s two most powerful men would go mano a mano at Mar-a-Lago. Hadn’t Trump railed against China on the campaign trail for “stealing” American jobs? Hadn’t he vowed to officially label China a currency manipulator on “Day One” of his presidency? Didn't he promise to slap Chinese imports with 45% tariffs?

In the days ahead of the summit, Trump himself fueled speculation of conflict, He took to Twitter to blame China for America’s “massive trade deficits and job losses,” and predicted his meeting with Xi would be a “very difficult one.” His aides told The New York Times the White House was “planning to roll out its first concrete measures on trade” and “hardening its position” on China. In an interview with the Financial Times, Trump warned that if China didn’t do more to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear testing program, the U.S. was prepared to take unilateral action.

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Many reports suggested Xi, too, was girding for combat. A host of pundits speculated the Chinese president, taking a page from Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe's playbook, was preparing to outfox Trump with a long list of “tweetable deliverables” -- vague but seemingly significant proposals purporting to increase Chinese investment in the U.S.

As it turned out, the summit was all smiles. At the conclusion of talks Friday, Trump hailed the meeting as having made “tremendous progress” and declared the U.S. – China relationship “outstanding.” He predicted “lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away.”

Xi was similarly upbeat. “We have engaged in deeper understanding, and have built a trust - a preliminary working relationship and friendship,” he said. “I believe we will keep developing in a stable way to form friendly relations.”

The two leaders seemed genuinely at ease with each other. There was none of the awkwardness and personal tension that marred Trump’s meetings with German chancellor Angela Merkel (with whom Trump famously refused to shake hands), or his initial phone call with Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull (whom Trump lambasted for pressing a “dumb” deal on refugees). On the summit's first night, representatives from the two countries dined on pan-seared Dover sole with champagne sauce and dry-aged prime New York strip steak--an upgrade from the Big Mac dinner Trump vowed on the stump to serve Xi in their first meeting.

But there were no details, either. No new agreements were announced. There was no indication of the two nations had come to any sort of specific understanding about how to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat, improve access for U.S. companies in China, or curb the U.S. trade deficit with China.

Trump's Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, speaking after the meeting, said the two nations had agreed on a "100 day plan" to tackle trade disputes, and promise there would be "way-stations of accomplishment" during that process. Ross, flanked by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, stressed that the main achievement of the summit was that the two leaders had established a personal rapport. Trump has accepted Xi's invitation to pay a state visit to China this year. The two sides have set up four new mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation in security, the economy, law enforcement and cybersecurity, replacing the existing Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

Trump's advisers sought to put a positive spin on the fact that the meeting with China was overshadowed by Trump's abrupt decision to bomb Syria, arguing that the move demonstrated the U.S. leader's willingness to use military force when necessary, and that Trump's show of resolve would make the China take his threat to deal unilaterally with North Korea more seriously. Some analysts hailed Trump's strike against Syria as an act of Nixonesque "strategic unpredictability."

But, as Foreign Policy Asia editor James Palmer notes in this essay, it would be uncharacteristic of a Chinese leader to interpret unpredictability as a sign of strength. In Xi's worldview, unpredictability is more likely to be seen as evidence of weakness, poor planning and indiscipline. So whether the drama of interrupting dinner to unleash Tomahawks on a rogue nation has bolstered or undermined Trump's leverage in future negotiations with China remains to be seen.

By the way: This essay originated in the first of a series of weekend editions of our CEO Daily newsletter focusing on China, its relationship with the U.S. and its rising significance in the world economy. Fortune will be stepping up its coverage, comment and analysis of China as we approach the Fortune Global Forum, which will be held in Guangzhou Dec 6-9.

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