The Telegraph, 6 April, 2017
Today sees the first day of a historic US-China summit in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, which will see two strongmen, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump sitting down together and thrashing out bilateral economic and security issues. Seen by many Washington insiders as premature, the summit with China seems to have come before President Trump has fully fleshed out his cabinet, and, some would say, before he has fleshed out his Asia policy. Whatever the case, the White House has indicated that North Korea, trade, and the South China Sea will be high on the agenda for the US side. For the man who talked of China over and over again on the campaign trail, a meeting with the Chinese president has been a long time in coming.
For his part, China’s President Xi Jinping has played China’s cards close to his chest. The China Daily, a state-owned newspaper, claimed the meeting was merely for the two leaders to “compare notes” and “help stabilize political relations” between the two. The ultimate aim being to avoiding what many academics call the “Thucydides Trap” in which an established power’s fear of a rising power leads to escalation and eventually war. Despite Trump’s fiery campaign rhetoric about China “raping” the US, manipulating its currency, and stealing American jobs, Beijing has muted its response to these charges, preferring to see him as a businessman, with whom they can make a deal.
Certainly, he presents a challenge. According to Fred Fleitz, a former Bush appointee, “China is coming here to try to figure Trump out.” In an age of twenty-four hour news, tweeting, and rapidly-changing policy positions, it is rare for political figures to defy interpretation.
So will the Chinese give him a deal? Some have argued that they will give him some sort of concession over North Korea. Not that Beijing genuinely believes US threats to consider “all options on the table”, i.e. military means, but they recognize serious signalling when they see it.
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