Key Rising Powers Warily Take Note of the Trump-Xi Summit
President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Ji Xinping met for the first time amidst an air of expectancy and great uncertainty last week. American attack on a Syrian airbase as the two leaders were sitting down to dinner on April 6 however overshadowed this summit with the world’s attention re-directed to American policy in Syria. This Policy Alert discusses how important actors in rising powers anticipated the summit and previews the underwhelming outcome.
The Chinese side was imbued with optimism ahead of the meeting with the U.S. President Donald Trump and this sense of optimism continued after the meeting concluded. In anticipation of the meeting, the Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “There are a thousand reasons to make the China-US relationship a success, and not a single reason to break it.” Xi also stated, “cooperation is the only correct choice for China and the US, and our two countries have every reason to become very good cooperation partners.” At the conclusion of the summit, Xi also spoke positive words: “We have engaged in deeper understanding, and have built a trust ― a preliminary working relationship and friendship …we will keep developing in a stable way to form friendly relations …For the peace and stability of the world, we will also fulfill our historical responsibility.”
Most Chinese not only expected the meeting to be a success but also emphasized its importance for China and the U.S. as well as for the world.
- According to a commentator from China Daily, the official state run newspaper, “the very fact that the Xi-Trump meeting is taking place in the first 100 days of the new American administration indicates that both sides have realized that coordination and cooperation between the two are indispensable.” However, the commentator also noted that the two presidents have opposing mottos: one has “America First” vision while the other’s is “community of shared destiny for mankind.”
- Another commentator from China Daily contended that “the two countries have the right conditions to expand and deepen their win-win cooperation and trade to create more success stories that will benefit not only their own economies, but also the world economy.”
- China News Service, the second largest state-owned news agency, echoed the optimistic message expressed in China Daily: “The upcoming meetings at Mar-a-Lago have the power to send a positive signal to the world. Guided by the principle of upholding non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, China is ready to work with the U.S. side to expand cooperation and manage their differences.”
- According to a commentator from Global Times, a nationalist newspaper, “The Xi-Trump meeting in Florida has served as an indicator that the China-US relationship is still very much on course since the Trump administration took office in January.” After referencing Trump’s One-China policy debacle in the earlier days of his presidency, the commentator continued, “The world’s anxieties over uncertainties can now find a level of solace through optimistic expectations.” For this commentator, “this transition is a masterpiece of erudite political wisdom. Mutual communication is increasing at a faster pace rather than the fomenting of some divulgences DIVERGENCES? that can stymy the strongest of relationships. This is a fortunate time for all of humanity, something more beyond the China-US dynamic.”
- Global Times also published an article titled “Xi-Trump summit transcends Sino-US ties” and reiterated that “the meeting will have enormous ramifications not only for Sino-US relations, but also for international politics.”
Some commentators took the opportunity to compare Trump to his predecessors.
- According to China News Service, “Above all, Trump came to the White House with the strongest economic and business background of any U.S. president in the modern era. He therefore well understands the complex web of interdependence, investment and trade that have benefited the U.S. and China so profoundly over the past four decades.”
- Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, is one of the very few who expressed a tint of pessimism regarding the Xi-Trump Summit. According to Wu, “it can be predicted that the frequency and intensity of trade frictions between Beijing and Washington during the Trump presidency will be higher than that during Obama’s term. The two countries should make more efforts to avoid the frictions from escalating into a trade war.”
As for policy matters, the commentators anticipated the North Korean issue to be an important item on the agenda.
- A Global Times op-ed argued that “a central task for the two presidents will be to agree to a coordinated strategy that could help forestall the largest crisis in East Asia since the Korean War.” The commentator noted that “neither wants a nuclear-armed North Korea, and neither wants another war on the peninsula.”
- Given Trump’s “America First” doctrine, Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University of China, opined that “China should strongly defend its core interests and deal with China-US relations in a more flexible way.” Shi also stated, “We [China] can make concessions on small issues and respond accordingly to the uncertainties of Trump’s policy…In order to make China give way on issues such as North Korean nuclear crisis and trade issues, Trump may offer promises that he won’t be able to keep. But it’s hard to imagine that there will be any major concessions on the main issues related to the core interests of the two countries.”
The optimism expressed in the Chinese newspapers was altogether absent from the Japanese ones. Most Japanese commentators expressed a rather gloomy outlook in anticipation of the meeting and highlighted “a series of unexpected events” that “overshadowed” the summit.
- An editorial from The Asahi Shimbun, a liberal leaning and the second largest daily circulation in Japan, welcomed “the early realization of the Trump-Xi summit.” It recognized that “in any area, global stability cannot be discussed without the involvement of the United States and China, and thus hoped “the two leaders will be fully aware of their heavy responsibility and proceed with constructive dialogue.”
- A commentator from Nikkei Asian Review, a conservative, center-right newspaper, expected trade, North Korea and South China Sea to be the main issues on the agenda for the summit. But the commentator expected that the two leaders have “unbridgeable differences over the three most important issues in U.S.-China relations” and said, “ Trump may be right to call the upcoming summit ‘very difficult.’”
- A Nikkei Asian Review commentator expected that “the real friction will be over how to handle Pyongyang” because “Trump is going to Mar-a-Lago looking for concrete Chinese actions to ratchet up the pressure on North Korea, and threatening to go it alone if Xi balks. And Xi will be looking to cooperate on bilateral economic issues to hold off a potential trade war, but is unlikely to bend much when it comes to using its economic influence on Pyongyang.” The commentator concluded that “That is not the recipe for a summit success. It has all the makings of a stalemate.”
- A Nikkei Asian Review contended that Xi’s primary goal for the summit was to seek a new beginning for his “major powers” initiative. But he got off to a rather rocky start” because “the summit was overshadowed by a series of unexpected events.” The commentator noted that “Xi must have felt quite awkward” because he was “right next to the commander in chief who had just ordered a bombing campaign in a politically sensitive region of the world, happily smiling and talking without knowing anything about the assault.”
At last week’s regular news briefing, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Cho June-hyuck said, “We expect the forthcoming US-China summit will provide a critical chance in the international community’s efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.”
The South Korean newspapers also focused on how North Korea would be handled by the two leaders and contemplated on whether Korean voices will be taken into account by the two leaders.
- Given the recent news from the Korean peninsula, a commentator on Korea Times, a liberal leaning newspaper, wrote that “watching the Sino-American summit this time, many Koreans were concerned if their fate would be determined by big powers as it was by Yalta.” The commentator did not think it was and concluded that “South Korea will have more voice when they elect a new president next month.”
- Another Korea Times commentator thought “Trump should give burger to Xi, not state dinner.”
- For a columnist from Korea Joongang Daily, a conservative leaning newspaper, the meeting between Xi and Trump was yet another example of leadership vacuum in South Korea. The columnist lamented that “Seoul remains an outsider even as their talks will probably directly affect the lives of the Korean people.” The columnist continued, “In normal times, Seoul officials would have been closely briefed on the issues to be tabled at the talks between the U.S. and Chinese leaders and their progress. But Seoul suffers from a leadership vacuum after the removal of the president and ahead of the presidential snap election.”
Although the Indian newspapers were muted in editorializing on the meeting between the Chinese and American leaders, they nevertheless followed the event closely.
- The Times of India, a center-right newspaper, highlighted that, “Trump ordered the Syrian air strike before dinner with Xi Jinping.” The article referenced Reuters which reported that the “summit took a backseat to the top-secret briefing by US National Security Adviser HR McMaster, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis…”
- The Pioneer, a pro-ruling BJP newspaper, reported that “China on Friday refrained from joining Russia in condemning the US missile strikes in Syria after being caught by surprise amid President Xi Jinping’s first summit meeting with his American counterpart Donald Trump in the US.” This brief story was titled, “China downplays US missiles strikes.”
POST SUMMIT PREVIEW
According to Korea Herald, “There seems to have been no progress, however, in their discussions on North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, which Trump and his aides had said would be a top agenda item.” Because of this perceived lack of progress, the commentator noted, “Barking dogs seldom bite. US President Donald Trump lived up to that idiom as he apparently did not push — or failed to — Chinese President Xi Jinping over North Korea as hard as he had said would.”
Russian commentators had very little to say about the Xi-Trump summit, and the commentaries were mostly related s to operations in Syria.
- A commentator from RBTH, a state-owned newspaper, expected that “After Washington launched a cruise missile strike against Syria using an inconsistent justification, Beijing will probably seek a firmer alliance with Moscow.”
- According to an op-ed on RT, another state-owned newspaper, “Syrian crisis buys Washington and Beijing more time to consider North Korea standoff” as “Washington’s preoccupation with Syria kept its summit with China to a ‘get to know each other’ level with no embarrassing public squabbles.”
Brazilian media outlets had limited reportage of President Trump and Xi Jinping’s summit.
- The international section of O Estadão, highlighted that President Trump “did not allow questions from the media,” while Xi answered questions exclusively in Chinese (with no translation).
- Folha de São Paulo discussed Trump’s choice to deploy Nimitz-Carl Vinson aircraft carriers and guided missiles to the Korean peninsula in the context of the meeting with Jinping. The media outlet reports that Trump “requested that his Chinese colleague intercedes in halting its ally’s nuclear program (…) threatening unilateral action if otherwise.”