The Stakes at Mar-a-Lago
Xi is ready for the summit. Trump can’t possibly be. There are no Asia experts in his inner circle, he has not completed a review of China policy,and he hasn’t made appointments to the departments of State and Defense that are vital to effective management of the relationship. Most importantly—and like Barack Obama before him—he has not conducted an audit of America’s ability to uphold its commitments in Asia in light of China’s economic and military rise and the United States’ strategic distractions, costly domestic agenda, and looming structural budget crisis. Without that audit, bluffing Xi is out of the question. If Washington won’t do its math, Beijing will.
At the summit in Mar-a-Lago, U.S. President Donald Trump hopes to alter deeply-rooted Chinese policies despite having no China strategy. China’s Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping hopes that by making deals on secondary matters important to Trump, he can indefinitely postpone America’s development of a strategic response to China’s rise. I offer a framework for an American China strategy at the end of this piece.
Xi is offering the United States a chance to make a mistake the Chinese call “throwing aside a watermelon to pick up sesame seeds” (丢了西瓜捡芝麻). The Mar-a-Lago sesame seeds may be Chinese factories that hire American workers, progress on a bilateral investment treaty, or agreement to tighten the screws on Chinese corporations that do business with Pyongyang: all welcome developments. But the watermelon, which Xi wants, is long-term global influence. America’s lack of an informed, energetic China strategy—a deficit which predates the Trump administration—indicates that Xi may draw closer to getting it in Mar-a-Lago.
Not only does Xi know what he wants from the United States—more on that below—his goals are founded in a comprehensive assessment of China’s capabilities, appreciation for the strength of the United States, and continual evaluation of how changing geostrategic factors present dangers and opportunities for China, including opportunities for global leadership. Through control of China’s media, moreover, and by skillfully invoking his countrymen’s desire for wealth and status, Xi seems to have united most of his people and the vast Chinese bureaucracy behind his goals.
Xi is ready for the summit. Trump can’t possibly be. There are no Asia experts in his inner circle, he has not completed a review of China policy, and he hasn’t made appointments to the departments of State and Defense that are vital to effective management of the relationship. Most importantly—and like Barack Obama before him—he has not conducted an audit of America’s ability to uphold its commitments in Asia in light of China’s economic and military rise and the United States’ strategic distractions, costly domestic agenda, and looming structural budget crisis. Without that audit, bluffing Xi is out of the question. If Washington won’t do its math, Beijing will.
Trump has declared that he is going to Florida to reduce America’s trade deficit with China and to convince Xi to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. Xi’s policy priorities, too, are no secret. His goals are to maintain the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.)’s monopoly on power, to improve the welfare of the Chinese people through continued economic development, and to use trade, investment, the threat of military force, and leadership of global organizations to convince Asian nations to accept Chinese primacy.
To succeed in what he calls “the great revitalization of the Chinese nation,”what Xi chiefly needs from the United States is to be left alone. Beginning in the early 1980s, Xi’s predecessors sought American investment, technology, and managerial expertise, as well as U.S. support in organizations like the WTO, IMF, and World Bank. Xi’s China, however, believes it is self-sufficient and that it would be welcomed as the benign hegemon of Asia if only the U.S. would face reality and draw down. China is grateful for the pax Americana that allowed it to flourish over the last 40 years, and it does not wish the United States ill as long as it confines itself to a Western sphere of influence, but it’s time for the U.S. to exit China’s doorstep stage right. Xi will call if he needs anything.
Trump’s goal at the Florida summit is to wrest concessions from Xi in the immediate term; Xi is there to take Trump’s measure in light of China’s long-term goals.
Agreeing to increase pressure on Pyongyang, to buy more American goods, or to sign a communiqué is a small price for China to pay to stabilize relations with the U.S. Xi needs stability as he prepares for the C.C.P.’s 19th Congress, a meeting scheduled for late 2017 that could define his leadership for at least five more years. Making deals with Trump also serves to keep American minds focused on gradual progress instead of on the hard strategic questions which China’s rise poses:
- Will the United States be less secure if China dominates the Asia-Pacific?
- What price might the U.S. have to pay to prevent Chinese domination?
- Do Americans wish to live in a world that is increasingly amenable to an increasingly repressive C.C.P.?
- Can the U.S. make honorable adjustments to the liberal world order and the security architecture in the Western Pacific that will mollify, rather than embolden, China?
If the U.S. trade deficit with China drops to zero after Mar-a-Lago, and if North Korean leader Kim Jung-un surrenders his nukes, these questions will be no less urgent. A real China strategy must address them.
Trump’s goal at the Florida summit is to wrest concessions from Xi in the immediate term; Xi is there to take Trump’s measure in light of China’s long-term goals. To achieve this, Xi doesn’t need Trump to declare his strategic disposition toward China, he only needs to know what Trump believes about the United States itself. If Trump thinks that America’s greatness depends on its alliances and its leadership of a liberal global order, Xi may have to recalibrate his push into the Western Pacific and Eurasia. But if Trump views America only as a mechanism for the aggrandizement of its citizens, Xi will conclude that China’s “period of strategic opportunity” may last longer than previously thought, and he will pursue his international agenda more aggressively.
The danger in Trump’s approach to China is not that he will push too hard at Mar-a-Lago, offend Xi, or make bad deals. It is that, despite his campaign rhetoric, China may be the thing Trump never quite gets around to. Immigration, health care, tax reform, a controversial budget, ISIS, and the Russia scandal are all higher up on his to-do list. The China challenge, while broadly understood, is historic, not immediate; it seems remote in time and space and is so damnably difficult that Americans and their government are unlikely give it the attention it requires unless there is a threat of war.
China is adept at keeping its provocations below that threshold, but its ambitions are undiminished. The C.C.P., its propaganda organs, multinational corporations, military, universities, and many ordinary Chinese believe that China is destined to recover its rightful status as the greatest nation on earth and that, to do so, it must weaken the United States’ influence in Asia.
In the face of such resolve, American inattention is acquiescence.
A Proposed China Policy Framework
Analysts who charge policymakers with strategic laziness should offer solutions or put down their pens. Announcing the following principles of American China policy—assuming the U.S. has the will and resources to back them up—would make for a good start at Mar-a-Lago.
American China policy is grounded in three communiqués concluded between Washington and Beijing in 1972, 1979, and 1982; in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979; and in the Six Assurances of 1982, in which President Ronald Reagan assured Taiwan that its welfare would not be sacrificed in the service of closer ties between the U.S. and China.Upon that foundation, and in light of changes in the United States, China, and the global environment over the last few decades, American China policy should have the following components:
- The United States is committed to avoiding war with China, which would be an American, Chinese, and worldwide catastrophe.
- The United States is committed to strengthening mutually beneficial economic relations with China by ensuring that terms of trade and investment are fair and transparent.
- The United States will work with China to meet common challenges, including: combatting international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and drug and human trafficking; preventing global pandemics; combatting global warming; managing cross-border environmental and food/consumer product safety issues; and clarifying global standards for use of cyber and other emerging technologies.
- The United States recognizes the need of all nations in the Asia-Pacific region for a security architecture that provides peace and prosperity in accordance with international law. The U.S. expects that China will play a commensurate role in that architecture. Upholding its Asian alliances and ensuring that regional resources, including airspace and the maritime commons, are managed by all stakeholders in accordance with law are major interests of the United States and must not be compromised by any adjustments made to the regional security architecture.
- The United States welcomes China as a responsible provider of international public goods through investment, trade, aid, leadership of global organizations, and delivery of emergency services. The United States welcomes China’s efforts to improve international laws, norms, and practices that increase the well-being of all nations.
- The United States will oppose actions of China, or any nation, that limit the international free-flow of information, the transparency and fairness of multilateral governance, and the ability of citizens of all countries to understand and contribute to decisions that affect them; or that threaten principles agreed to under the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- In order to encourage cooperation and to secure the peace, the United States will continue to support policies which allow Americans and Chinese to interact freely with each other’s cultures, ideas, commercial goods, and academic, professional, and non-governmental institutions.
This article was originally published at Chinafile under the title: "Xi Is Ready for the Summit. Trump Can’t Possibly Be. So What Should He Do?"
About the Author
Robert Daly, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, has compiled an unusually diverse portfolio of high-level work: He has served as a U.S. diplomat in Beijing; as an interpreter for Chinese and U.S. leaders, including President Carter and Secretary of State Kissinger; as head of China programs at Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, and the University of Maryland; and as a producer of Chinese-language versions of Sesame Street. Recognized East and West as a leading authority on Sino-U.S. relations, he has testified before Congress, lectured widely in both countries, and regularly offers analysis for top media outlets.Read More
Kissinger Institute on China and the United States
The mission of Kissinger Institute on China and the United States is to ensure that informed engagement remains the cornerstone of U.S.-China relations. Read more