White House. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons) Photograph: (Others)
Washington expects Beijing to do more in reining in North Korea but what incentives can US offer for such a policy shift remains to be seen
So far, it’s all been about allies, but this week will be different. US President Donald Trump is set to host his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for a two-day summit at his exclusive Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on April 6-7.
The meeting between the leaders of the world’s biggest economies, as Trump predicted in a tweet, is expected to be “a difficult one”. Sino-US ties had witnessed steady growth under Barack Obama, both in style and substance.
For starters, Obama’s much-vaunted and now abandoned pivot to Asia led to anxieties in Beijing – the kinds that Obama sought to sooth by becoming the first US president to visit China during his first year in office.
Through Obama’s terms in office, Sino-US ties grew within a theoretical framework of expanding cooperation while containing conflict. In a sense that axiom was adhered to.
While the Obama White House resisted the Chinese narrative of designating ties as a “new type of great power relationship,” Obama did acknowledge that the China-US relationship was the “most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century”.
Despite the inherent frictions in the relationship, Obama and Xi met on 11 different occasions since 2013. Their interactions often showcased a strong personal rapport, whether it was in the heat of the desert in Sunnylands in 2013 or under the cool blue lights of the imperial gardens of Zhongnanhai in November 2014.
While fundamental irritants - such as North Korea, the South China Sea dispute, differences at the UN Security Council, along with trade, currency valuation and cyber-security – have persisted, there has been historic cooperation in areas where interests have coincided, such as combating climate change and arriving at a deal with Iran on its nuclear programme.
Most importantly, however, the Obama years showed that strategic containment of China is a venture that is destined to fail. For instance, while Obama negotiated the TPP, which today lies in ruins, China has moved ahead with its Belt and Road Initiative and expanded its influence through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
With the arrival of Trump and his hostile approach to economic globalisation, Xi has sought to position himself as the face of an interconnected world, as evident in his recent address in Davos.
Another such scenario was witnessed last week. As Trump signed an executive order to demolish an array of anti-global warming policies at home, Chinese state media showcased images of Xi planting trees with primary school students in Beijing, promising to build an ecological civilisation. While Trump has indicated that he will be pulling out of the Paris climate change accord, Xi has vowed that China will remain true to its commitments to combat global warming.
So, when it comes to optics, Beijing has clearly out-done the Trump White House, although given the new US President’s rhetorical incoherence, one can legitimately argue that this wasn’t really a difficult task.
In terms of the bilateral relationship, Trump, it seems, has steadily climbed down from the vitriol of the campaign and transition periods.
For instance, in December Trump called Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, raising doubts whether he would respect the One-China policy. By February, however, he agreed to support the One-China policy during a phone conversation with Xi.
Likewise, all the campaign trail threats of designating China as a currency manipulator have not led to any policy action so far. Moreover, as has been the case so far under Trump, the President’s off-the-cuff and often abrasive Twitter rhetoric has been balanced out by his diplomatic emissaries.
During his visit to Beijing in March, US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, went as far as borrowing Chinese catchphrases - “non-confrontation”, “no conflict”, “mutual respect” and “win-win solutions” - to describe Sino-US ties. That led to a rather strange media debate, with commentators speculating that despite the Twitter hostility, the new US administration will actually be more accommodating of China’s great power narrative than Obama was.
Finally, while Trump has continued to lash out at Beijing for not doing enough to rein in an aggressive Pyongyang and threatened to go it alone against the North with the military option being on the table, the truth is that there are very few realistic options available for Washington to explore.
China, which accounts for nearly 70 per cent of Pyongyang’s trade, says that its influence over North Korea is overstated by Washington. It has consistently argued that it is Washington’s aggression, such as the recent joint military drills with Seoul in the region, which is making it difficult to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table.
Beijing has reportedly proposed a "double halt" approach, with all sides dialing down the aggression. But that’s a concept that the US State Department has already dismissed.
If for argument's sake, we assume that Trump is correct and that Beijing can do more to contain North Korea, but has been shirking that responsibility, then what is it that Washington can offer to encourage a policy shift?
In an interview to the Financial Times ahead of Xi’s visit, Trump is quoted as saying “trade is the incentive. It’s all about trade”. But given that the US trade deficit with China stands at $347 billion, a figure that Trump has promised to bring down, what sort of incentives can Trump realistically offer? Perhaps, we’ll all have a better idea by April 6.
But from assessing what we’ve seen so far, don’t hold your breath: Trump isn’t likely to follow up on the tough talk with serious action or a grand bargain just yet.