The Chinese and US flags fluttered on the South Lawn of the White House on a sunny April day in 2006, and the crowd applauded as US president George W. Bush welcomed his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao.
Almost immediately, though, things started to go wrong. The first anthem, an American announcer said, would be from the “Republic of China,” rather than the People’s Republic of China, a massive if inadvertent insult to the US’s honored guest (the first refers to Taiwan).
Then, as Hu began to speak, a woman in the press galley on the lawn started screaming. “President Hu, your days are numbered,” she heckled. A supporter of the Falun Gong, a religious sect persecuted by Beijing, the protester was forcibly taken away, but not before the chief guest, and the president, were visibly rattled.
The tension on the South Lawn was so thick, “it felt like it took hours for White House security personnel to remove her from the gallery,” one aghast US government attendee tells Quartz. As the event continued, Bush added to the insults, appearing to manhandle Hu at one point during a photo opportunity, possibly due to the language barrier.
(The gaffes were so memorable they are still floating around on YouTube 11 years later).
As US president Donald Trump prepares to meet China’s president Xi Jinping at his private club in Florida today, interviews with executives from American and foreign companies all include the same message for Trump: “Just don’t screw it up.”
It is a big ask. Chinese-American government meetings are often tense and filled with potential pitfalls, as leaders from the world’s two largest economies attempt to negotiate despite vast differences in ideology, culture, and language. But the Bush gaffes happened with a fully staffed White House and State Department, with an administration that paid attention to detail, and without the baggage of the US president having insulted his counterpart for months.
Troubles in the Trump White House
China-US negotiations are typically set by policy wonks, not the country’s leaders. The thinking here is that the layers of bureaucrats have spent years learning about each other’s culture.
The Trump administration, though, “doesn’t have any of these people,” says Christopher Balding, a professor of economics at Peking University. “So you’re left with Ivanka [Trump] and Rex [Tillerson] calling Popeye’s chicken and saying ‘We’ve got the president of China coming, can you cater?'” he joked.
(In reality, Trump may be planning to treat Xi to the Thursday night all-you-can-eat roast beef buffet at Mar-a-lago, a friend of his told Politico.)
But there’s no chief of protocol yet in the State Department, for example, the official usually responsible for briefing the president and vice-president on how to act in diplomatic meetings. That position is just one of the hundreds of jobs the Trump administration has yet to fill. (And some may never be filled, due to a proposal to cut the State Department’s budget by 29%.) There’s also a dearth of the kinds of Asia experts usually tasked with planning the strategy behind US relationships in the region.
“We can’t even find the people to help us set up meetings” with decision-makers in the Trump administration, an ambassador from a US ally in Asia complained this week to Quartz. In a sign of general disarray, the White House has been issuing press releases cut-and-pasted from company reports, and has yet to put out any at all statement about its latest big personnel shakeup, the departure of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council.
This seeming chaos adds to a long list of differences between Beijing and Washington, and between Xi and Trump.
“The Chinese are obsessed with preparation,” says Eric Altbach, a senior vice president with Albright Stonebridge Group, and former US trade representative in China. “China is very concerned about the prestige of their leaders and making sure that high level meetings are conducted according to a very carefully prepared plan,” he notes, which could the meeting particularly fraught.
Which Trump shows up?
A small group of moderate White House advisors said in a background briefing on Tuesday that the meeting would be a “constructive” and “results oriented” discussion, and the fact Xi has come at all indicates that Beijing is confident there a positive outcome is possible.
But the success of the meeting ultimately hinges on one big remaining unknown—which Trump will show up.
His fiery anti-China rhetoric on the campaign trail seemed to be fueled by a separate group of advisors whose view of China seemed stuck in the 1980s. Given Trump’s apparent habit of changing his opinions based on the person he spoke with more recently, a key to making this meeting a success seems to be making sure Trump speaks with the right group of advisors last.
(The State Department referred all questions about the meeting to the White House. The White House didn’t respond to questions about the meeting.)
Ultimately, there are some lines that Trump just cannot cross. “If there is a statement or outcome from the summit that appears to directly challenge one of China’s core interests, and appears to be a formal reorientation of US policy, then China would have to respond very vigorously,” the Albright Stonebridge Group’s Altbach explains.
The fallout after Bush’s 2006 stumble was noticeable—the Chinese government was convinced that the White House had allowed the protestor in on purpose in order to embarrass Beijing on human rights, the US government attendee tells Quartz. Chinese state TV didn’t even carry the ceremony. Relations between the two countries remained relatively strained until Bush attended the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing two years later.
The Chinese so far “have handled Trump very well because they seem to have been very patient,” Peking University’s Balding says, by not responding to his anti-China tweets and provocations. Still, he added, “Maybe I’m setting the bar too low,” he says, “but my primary goal is no major gaffes.”