Preview of Trump’s China visit
By George N. Tzogopoulos
China is ready to welcome President Donald Trump after having successfully organized the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party. The leadership of President Xi Jinping has been widely endorsed. His position is therefore strengthened ahead of new developments at the national and international level. By contrast, his American counterpart starts his Asia tour in the end of a particularly difficult week. New York was hit by a terrorist for the first time after 9/11 while Trump and his associates are scrutinized for their alleged ties to Russia. The relevant title of a CNN article is characteristic: ‘Trump takes his troubles to Asia’.
Xi and Trump are frequently holding telephone conversations and have already met two times. The first was last April in Mar-a-Lago and the second last July in Hamburg, on the sidelines of the G20 Summit. Their third meeting in Beijing will certainly be significant as it will take place after rounds of institutional dialogues have begun. Beijing and Washington are sitting on the same table to discuss issues ranging from trade and security to culture and law enforcement. On the initiative of the two presidents, a regular exchange of views can only contribute towards a better understanding.
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive on Air Force One in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017.[Photo:AP]
Of course, important differences do exist. To start with trade and economics, China is complaining for not being able to always complete acquisitions of American technology companies. A few weeks ago, for example, Trump blocked the takeover of the American semiconductor maker Lattice by a Chinese consortium. On these grounds, the US President’s will to significantly reduce his country’s trade deficit with China does not seem realistic. It should not be forgotten that numerous manufacturing jobs in the US are often dependent on imports of cheap Chinese products. Also, several US firms manufacture many of their products in China and when they sell them in the US, the money they earn adds to the surplus on the Chinese side.
Despite flaws in Trump’s approach, steps to reduce this trade deficit have been made. In June China took delivery of first shipments of American beef in 14 years. It is also considering the option of importing American natural gas in order to further boost its policy of diversification of energy sources. All this suggests that economic and trade differences can better be dealt with through friendly consultations instead of unilateral actions. Trump’s August decision to start a probe against China for an alleged ‘theft’ of intellectual property is not placed in this framework and does not help the bilateral relationship.
With reference to foreign policy, China and the US disagree on the issues of South China Sea and North Korea. The former believes that no external involvement is required in the South China Sea and sees the American approach vis-à-vis the Korean Peninsula as counterproductive by leading to an increase of tensions synthesized around the scenario of ‘regime change’. And the latter insists on the logic of ‘freedom of navigation’ in South China Sea and attempts to persuade Beijing to put more pressure on Pyongyang, thinking it supposedly has the key for a solution.
Foreign policy differences cannot be bridged during Trump’s stay in Beijing. However, it is important for China and the US to reach a minimum level of cooperation in order to show to the international community that they remain committed to the preservation of peace and stability. In the final account, security collaboration between the two sides goes beyond the afore-mentioned thorny themes and touches upon the fight against terrorism, humanitarian assistance, anti-piracy and military medical sciences.
Last but not least, Trump’s visit in Beijing is taking place at a juncture seeing the US position weaker in comparison to the Barack Obama years. The withdrawal from TPP has left a vacuum in the Asia-Pacific region which can be possibly filled in by China by its regional integration initiatives. Although the traditional military alliance between the US and its partners in Asia – such as Japan and South Korea – is expected to be reinforced, China is emerging as a new dynamic regional player promising free trade and good ‘win-win’ perspectives. The implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative in Asia in an additional asset. And it is maybe now a good opportunity for Trump to formulate a clear position on the matter.
(Dr George N. Tzogopoulos is a senior research fellow and advisor for EU-China relations at the Centre international de formation européenne, Nice/Berlin.)