Analysis

Trump and Xi: Little in common besides the need to improve relations

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping — men with little in common besides the pressing need to forge a better diplomatic relationship.

U.S. president to host Chinese president at the end of the week

A magazine cover at a Beijing newsstand featuring the Chinese and U.S. presidents in February, after Trump issued belated well-wishes to China for the Lunar New Year, saying he hoped to work with his Chinese counterpart to build a 'constructive relationship.' (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

The two men have very little in common.

Donald Trump, the flamboyant business tycoon and former reality show host, brash and belligerent, new to politics and to the U.S. presidency. 

His golf club guest? Xi Jinping, a lifelong politician and bureaucrat who worked his way up from the local to the national stage, and seems set to rule China for many years to come. Modest and measured in public but shrewd and determined behind the scenes, where he exercises his power as president of China and leader of the Communist Party virtually unchallenged. 

The key point is to have a personal connection. So they can pick up the phone when necessary and come up with solutions and keep a crisis from affecting this very complex relationship.- Zhao  Hai, National Strategy Institute

Xi has never been seen playing golf. 

And it doesn't seem like he'll be taking it up, even as he meets Trump at the U.S. president's Florida club, Mar-a-Lago, on Thursday. 

Xi and the Chinese delegation will be staying at another resort nearby.

Nonetheless, Zhao Hai, an analyst with China's National Strategy Institute, says the meeting is "a good sign." 

"The key point is to have a personal connection," he said. "So they can pick up the phone when necessary and come up with solutions and keep a crisis from affecting this very complex relationship." 

Rocky start

That relationship had a rocky and confusing start. 

The outspoken Communist Party tabloid Global Times called Trump "ignorant as a child in foreign policy."

Trump has accused China of playing dirty with trade, and stealing American jobs. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

He began his presidency by cozying up to Taiwan and questioning the "one China" policy — a fundamental understanding of its borders and sovereignty that the U.S. has accepted for four decades. It was an outrageous move, as far as Beijing is concerned.

He accused China of playing dirty with trade, deliberately devaluing its currency, stealing American jobs and dumping products like steel into the United States at artificially low prices. 

Trump's Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, even threatened to use military force to keep China away from islands it claims in the South China Sea. 

And then, just as quickly, Trump backtracked. Gone was the threat of military force in the South China Sea. The "one China" policy was accepted.

In a visit to Beijing, Tillerson even repeated China's own words in his promise to improve relations: a vow of "non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win co-operation." His host, Xi, smiled and nodded. 

U.S. State of Secretary Rex Tillerson, right, met with China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing in March. (Thomas Peter/Pool/Associated Press)

Plans to challenge China on trade issues remain. But executive orders examining possible action and tweets sent out by Trump last week are vague. And none of Trump's big threats — to impose a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese imports, for instance — are being seriously considered.

The relationship has also been peppered with impulsive, undiplomatic tirades from Trump, in his typical 140-character bursts.

In one, he condemned China for "taking massive amounts of money and wealth" from the U.S. but refusing to help solve the military crisis with North Korea. "Nice!" he concludes sarcastically.

Indeed, North Korea is likely to be the most pressing issue when Trump and Xi get together.

Since the 1990s, North Korea's Kim dynasty has been pressing ahead with plans to acquire nuclear weapons, and to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile with which it can hit the United States. Several U.S. presidents have tried negotiating, pressuring and threatening Pyongyang to convince it to abandon the weapons program, to no avail.

After two powerful nuclear explosions last year and dozens of tests of missiles and components, it is closer than ever to its goal.

The United Nations Security Council has imposed strict economic sanctions and limits on technology transfers to North Korea, but there are significant loopholes.

And many of them are under Beijing's nose: banks (including state-owned institutions) that help money transfers for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un; shell companies that move goods in and out; port visits by North Korea-bound ships.

China in an 'awkward situation'

China could close the holes, and it is in a unique position to try to convince Kim to abandon his nuclear and missile program, based on ideological and historical connections — though its influence is wearing thin, and so is its patience

Still, Beijing has its own reasons for treading lightly.

It fears that if Kim is forced into a humiliating retreat, his regime could be so weakened, it could collapse.

"China is in a very awkward situation." says Cheng Xiaohe, professor of international studies at Beijing's People's University. "It wants and needs peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. It is quite afraid of pushing too hard and causing massive chaos and a refugee crisis on its borders."

So for his part, Xi will be pressing Trump to try to resolve the issue peacefully, through negotiations with Kim. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also suggested the U.S. could show good faith by reducing its military presence in South Korea — something Pyongyang sees as a constant threat of invasion.

Washington has already rejected both approaches. It even refuses to rule out a pre-emptive military attack on Kim's facilities.

A Secret Service agent stands watch as Trump departs his private Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, where he will host Chinese President Xi Jinping in April. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

All of that has led to deep suspicion between China and the U.S. of each other's motives, says Michael Kovrig, a senior adviser on northeast Asia for the International Crisis Group think-tank.

"North Korea could have been a subject on which China and the U.S. could have worked together to build confidence and trust between each other, but instead it's become a source of deeper mistrust," he said.

And it is just fuelling a feeling in Beijing that the U.S. is still trying to assert military dominance in the region, says Zhao, the analyst.

"Since the Second World War, U.S. strategy has been to contain China," he said. "And some in the U.S. want to continue with that. A preparation for military-to-military confrontation. Now the two countries are so interconnected, it is unthinkable for the two to go into conflict. So it is critical for them to accommodate this new era."

Even if successful, this week's golf club summit will just be a small start.

About the Author

Saša Petricic

Asia correspondent

Saša Petricic is the CBC's Asia correspondent, based in Beijing. He has covered China as well as reported from North and South Korea. He previously reported on the Middle East, from Jerusalem, through the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. He has filed stories from every continent for CBC News. Instagram: @sasapetricic

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