Hopes aren’t very high for groundbreaking diplomacy to transpire at the meeting between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. But still, China-watchers are eager to see what happens at a face-to-face between what they characterize as a kind of diplomatic Odd Couple.
“At such a high-level summit, concerns should be raised by Trump about Chinese authorities’ attack on lawyers and on the rule of law,” says Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, a non-governmental organization based in New York and Hong Kong. “But we have no illusion that Trump will or could credibly raise human rights issues with President Xi Jinping. Given Trump’s blatant disregard for rights and attacks on the free press at home, any allegations by him of Chinese human right violations would be met with charges of hypocrisy and interference with Chinese internal affairs.”
A joint statement from democracy activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan seen by Pacific Standard called on Trump to raise the issue of three democracy activists detained by Chinese police with little information on their whereabouts. One of those activists, Lee Ming-che, is a Taiwanese passport holder; his arrest is being seen as an assault on Taiwanese sovereignty.
Whether that will happen remains to be seen.
Taiwan itself is among a host of issues the two may raise, according to Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the Honolulu-based East-West Center think tank. Following Trump’s election, the then-president elect spoke with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen on the phone, provoking a diplomatic standoff between Washington and Beijing. China maintains that Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic, and Washington remains ostensibly committed to Taiwan’s reunification, but continues to fund the island’s military and receive shadow diplomats operating as cultural and economic attaches in the United States.
In addition to to Taiwan, Roy believes Trump and Xi will address North Korea. Trump has said Washington will “solve” Pyongyang without international support if the country continues to test missiles and Beijing doesn’t act to help rein it in, as has often been the case. Other items potentially on the agenda include perennial concerns that the Chinese government is breaching U.S. cybersecurity, the U.S.’s $350 billion trade deficit with China, and China’s ongoing dispute with Southeast Asian nations over the South China Sea, Roy says.
“Given Trump’s blatant disregard for rights and attack on the free press at home, any allegations by him of Chinese human right violations would be met with charges of hypocrisy and interference with Chinese internal affairs.”
The subject of trade should also be especially paramount, Roy affirms.
“Trump needs to deliver on his promise to stop China from economically ‘raping’ the U.S.A.,” he says. “During the campaign he said the solution to the North Korea crisis was to use economic pressure to force China to solve the problem ‘with one meeting or one phone call.’ This week, however, he has taken the more realistic and savvy position that the U.S.A. will move unilaterally if China doesn’t cooperate, which is much more likely to get China’s attention.”
It’s possible that, whatever breakthrough on trade and other issues will happen, it’s already been brokered, behind the scenes.
“My sense is — certainly for the Chinese side — they don’t want to come to a meeting without some assurance, some expectations of deliverables. In a way, some of the details may have already been worked out — on trade,” says Chicago University political science professor and China analyst Dali Yang.
But there may not be much substantial movement on sensitive and complex topics like human rights — including rights for Taiwanese rights activists like Lee—but Hom, from Human Rights in China, believes the dynamic will be an interesting one. “In style, Trump and Xi are very different: one is petulant, out of control, and divorced from facts, reality, and policy coherence; the other, a sophisticated and strategic political player,” she says.
Yet there are similarities between the two men.
“Both are also similar in one important way: There are no principles or human rights bottom lines they will respect in trying to reach their respective goals,” Hom says. “For Trump, that goal is to benefit the Trump brand and family, and for Xi Jinping, maintain party power.”
A degree of vast, unchecked power on either side also unites the two, says Qingwen Dong, a communications professor at University of the Pacific.
“To some degree both of them are similar in character and in their behaviors. They have the power and they want to use the power to complete a huge task,” Dong says.
What remains uncertain is if either Trump or Xi themselves have any real expectations for this encounter.
“I am not sure either side knows what they want to get out of the meeting. Trump seems not to have thought very seriously about relations with China — or any other aspect of foreign policy — while Xi is almost certainly skeptical that much can be gained by engaging with the U.S. right now,” says William Hurst, a Northwestern University political science professor and expert on Chinese politics.
Like the other analysts, Hurst’s “expectations are not high.”
“Both leaders, though, face significant domestic political pressure not to appear ‘soft’ on the other country. Trump has made bashing China a centerpiece of his message of economic populism and protectionism,” Hurst adds. “Xi has avoided almost any direct comment on Trump or recent U.S. political developments, but any perceived accommodation to the U.S. in the current climate would likely be seen by many in China as caving to anti-China bullying.”
Those who’ve found Trump’s firebrand rhetoric on China entertaining in the past may be underwhelmed this week.
“I wouldn’t expect any visible strife during the summit,” says Roy, the fellow with the East-West Center. “Xi wants the appearance of calm and smoothness, and Trump usually tries to be polite in face-to-face meetings with foreign leaders. I would expect problems and recriminations afterward, however. Xi has a pattern of making promises that China later seems to break.”
Maybe that would be something to draw Trump’s social media ire.