Xi-Trump summit sets the tone for future relationship between China and US

China Plus Published: 2017-04-11 09:50:49
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Xi-Trump summit sets the tone for future relationship between China and US

By Rabi Sankar Bosu

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart, Donald Trump finally met on April 6 and 7 in a highly-anticipated summit at Trump's Spanish-style Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida to facilitate a constructive and productive relationship between the two countries. Trump's inaugural meeting with Xi had served the purpose of advancing the Sino-US relationship. The outcomes of the first face-to-face meeting have been epitomized in the words of President Xi, "We had long and in-depth communication. And, more importantly, we have further built up understanding and establish a kind of trust, and we have initially built up a working relationship and friendship.'' Indeed, the two-day meeting is a new starting point for the world's most important bilateral relationship, which will not only benefit the two countries but also the world at large.

During his two-day stay in the Sunshine State of Florida, President Xi held talks with President Trump and exchanged views on bilateral ties and major regional and global issues of common concern. Obviously, the first meeting between the world's two biggest powers is of great significance in charting the course of China - US relationship in a new era, advancing the development of bilateral ties in a healthy and stable way from a new starting point, and promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and the world at large. "I believe that with the passage of time we will make efforts to bear our great historical responsibility for promoting the development of Sino-US relations, to create prosperity for both countries and their people and to uphold global peace and stability," Xi said on the summit's second day.

It's important to note here that under the current thorny bilateral security and trade issues, Donald Trump was looking to have a successful summit after his combative campaign talk. His decision to host the Chinese President at his Mar-a-Lago resort – as opposed to the more formal setting of Washington – reflected a desire to hold frank talks with his Chinese counterpart. In an interview to the Financial Times over the weekend, Trump raised expectations by saying, "I would not be at all surprised if we did something that would be very dramatic and good for both countries." 

No doubt, the first diplomatic encounter between the two very different world leaders is much more genteel. The two leaders have established a good relationship with each other and have the mutual confidence that they would try to work out the difficult issues in the relationship looking for a win-win outcome. However, during their first dinner together, cordiality replaced Trump's fondness for China-bashing. The US President said he had "developed a friendship" with Chinese President Xi and that he thinks he will have a "very, very great relationship" with the Chinese leader. On his part, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that he is ready to work with his US counterpart, Donald Trump, to push forward China-US relations from a new starting point.

Trump, a billionaire real estate mogul before he ran for the Oval Office, regularly lambasted China, mainly for economic reasons. Quite clearly, few countries invited the kind of wrath that China did during Trump's presidential campaign in 2016. He said China had "raped the US economy", stealing its jobs. He had promised to impose massive tariffs on the import of goods from China. If China wanted to call it a "trade war", Trump seemed to say, "so be it". Even before taking office, he broke with decades of diplomatic policy by taking a telephone call from Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen.

As president, he has kept his tough stance on trade relations between the United States and China. He has voiced skepticism over America's long-standing "One China" policy. However, he seemed to reverse himself by reaffirming the One China policy in a phone call with President Xi on February 9 this year. Xi "praised" Trump's affirmation and said China was willing to work with the United States to enhance ties and bring "more fruitful gains for the benefit of our two peoples and those in every country."

It is quite clear that President Trump is still finding his footing in the White House and has yet to spell out a strategy for what his advisers called a trade relationship based on "the principle of reciprocity." In remarks to reporters ahead of the meeting, Trump said the roughly $310 billion U.S. trade deficit with China is high on the agenda. "We have been treated unfairly and have made terrible trade deals with China for many, many years. That's one of the things we are going to be talking about."

Trump has made no secret of his desire for a "better" trading relationship with China. As a dealmaker, he is using a "trade war" as the threat to get action from China in other areas. Trade protectionism is just a bad idea. A trade war would hurt both countries' economies. Other countries are interested in maximizing global trade - the foundation of China's "win-win" concept. The US needs to cooperate by not closing the US market from global trade, and Trump's aim to rebuild US infrastructure is an area where China could help. In present times, China has become the fastest-growing export market outside North America for the United States.

Chinese President Xi stabilised relations by bringing to Mar-a-Lago a list of economic "gestures" designed to send Trump with the message that the US should not endorse any China-led initiatives reflected the zero-sum mentality of the previous administration, and is an attitude Trump needs not inherit. He stressed that cooperation is the only right choice for China and the United States, saying that the two countries are capable of becoming great cooperative partners.

During the superpower summit, the two leaders agreed to a 100-day plan for trade talks aimed at boosting US exports and reducing the gaping US trade deficit with China. In the talks, President Xi Jinping has rightly referred the economic ties between China and United states as "a ballast stone." It is really an encouraging fact that in 2016, bilateral trade between China and the US reached $519.6 billion, 207 times higher than in 1979 when bilateral diplomatic relations were established. Bilateral trade in services exceeded $110 billion in 2016 with two-way investment surpassing $170 billion. This most authoritative data about Sino-US trade is indicating the unprecedented interdependence and complementarities between the two countries in economic and trade areas. Hopefully, the two leaders have agreed to promote the "healthy development of bilateral trade and investment."

Xi at his meeting with Trump made a great point in stating there are "a thousand reasons to make China-US relationship a success" and there is "not a single reason to break it". He reiterated at the meeting, "cooperation is the only correct choice for China and the US, and our two countries have every reason to become very good cooperation partners". The meeting has given Sino-US trade some optimistic hope, even though it will take time to address underlying problems between the two countries and even though trade frictions won't disappear in the near future. 

On the summit's second and final day, Friday, April 7, President Xi Jinping and Donald Trump discussed a range of contentious issues from the North Korean nuclear programme to bilateral trade disputes, concluding the summit with a working lunch with a new path forward on trade talks. "Tremendous progress" has been made in talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the US president said. Trump said Xi and his representatives have been "really interesting" to talk to and he believes the two sides will continue to make progress in solving issues between the two sides.

For his part, Xi said he received a warm reception from members of the Trump administration and the two sides came to "many understandings" after holding "in-depth and lengthy communications." Xi Jinping told Trump that China welcomes the participation of the US in cooperation within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. At the meeting, he offered Trump to visit China later this year, which Trump accepted with pleasure. Surely, close top-level communication between the two state leaders will consolidate mutual trust, sweep away obstacles and accomplish something that is great. 

However, it's really unfortunate that when the two presidents went into the meeting, the US military fired a barrage of missiles at an airbase in Syria controlled by President Bashar al-Assad in response to an earlier chemical weapon attack that reportedly caused over 100 civilian casualties, including 20 children. The US military attack in central Syria took place despite no definitive results from the investigation by an international organization, and was carried out in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution. Obviously, the US' decision to attack the Assad government is an "aggression against a sovereign state" from the US president. Though it is unclear whether Trump informed Xi of the attack during dinner, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the country is opposed to the use of force in international affairs. "We always hold that the Syrian issue should be resolved through political means," Hua Chunying said. The Global Times ran an editorial saying Trump was "flexing his muscle" with the action in Syria.

The informal "get-together" summit will surely soothe relations between the heads of state of the world's top two economies, particularly when differences emerge. Regarding the importance of last week's summit, People's Daily said in an editorial on April 9, 2017 that the Chinese president's first meeting with Trump had "built friendship and trust" and set the tone for a "stronger, higher and prettier" bilateral relationship that could last for decades.

There is no doubt that the United States and China bear heavy responsibilities as major countries in the world. It's really good to see that the two presidents candidly addressed the larger issues that divide the US and China. The first Xi-Trump summit was successful as both sides created a constructive atmosphere for the greater development of bilateral relations for the next few years. We cannot expect that two days of discussions between Xi and Trump will magically solve all the sensitive issues and differences but it is where the process must begin as the development of China-US ties matters a great deal for the Asia-Pacific and the world as a whole.

Rabi Sankar Bosu, Secretary of New Horizon Radio Listeners' Club, West Bengal, India

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