Meetings between the leaders of the world’s two most powerful countries have always been tense, but next week’s US-China summit comes at an especially fraught time.
Donald Trump will meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at his private Mar-a-Lago club with his fledgling presidency in upheaval. The White House and the Republican party are riven with infighting, key initiatives have stalled, and investigations into Russian interference in the presidential election have undermined his legitimacy.
A need to rebound from these setbacks may be one reason Trump has promised a “tough” discussion with Xi. He is sure to be coached by hardline China advisor Peter Navarro, who believes China is full of cheating thieves, intent on global domination. After Trump’s allegations that China had stolen jobs and a way of life from America’s middle class on the campaign trail, the stage seems set for a clash. Sensitive topics could include the trade imbalance, China’s over-production of steel, North Korea’s increasing militarization, and Beijing’s insistence that it control the South China Sea, in defiance of international law. American CEOs are worried that the wrong move could destabilize the relationship and harm the US economy.
Yet despite the tough talk, the Trump White House just issued a new China trade report that was little different from the one Barack Obama put out in 2016. And Trump has backed down from confrontation with Xi before, reversing his threat to develop closer US relations with Taiwan—a liberal self-governing island which China considers a province—after Beijing’s state media suggested China could arm the US’s enemies. Trump has already established a pattern with foreign leaders of talking tough but carrying a tiny stick, when it comes to policy.
In fact, so far, the Trump administration’s one real break with past US policy on China has been to get less tough, not more: It declined to join various allies in signing a letter last week criticizing Beijing for torturing human-rights lawyers. Perhaps, unlike with some of his foreign partners, Trump understands that in upsetting China, he would have a lot to lose.
This was published as part of the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief. Sign up here for our newsletters, tailored for morning delivery in Asia, Europe and Africa, or the Americas.