For seven decades, the United States has reined as the world’s unquestioned economic power. China, with its explosive growth, is on track to overtake the U.S. in the not-too-distant future.
The leaders of the two nations — which long have walked a tightrope as both crucial partners and wary adversaries — are scheduled to meet today at the Mar-a-Lago Club. President Donald Trump will host Chinese President Xi Jinping in their first face-to-face encounter.
Experts expect Trump and Xi to size each other up, but probably not to hammer out any substantive policies.
“Trump is very much looking to take the measure of the man, and Xi is looking to establish some rapport,” said Ely Ratner, senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The two leaders make for an uncomfortable match. Trump flaunts his wealth, calls out rivals and loves golf. Xi is a dedicated Communist, gives speeches that seem purposefully vague and heads a regime that decades ago banned golf.
Adding to the awkwardness, Trump repeatedly bashed China during his unconventional campaign this past year.
“China is responsible for nearly half of our entire trade deficit,” Trump said during an August campaign speech in Detroit. “They break the rules in every way imaginable.”
Xi, for his part, has responded in seemingly measured tones.
“Pursuing protectionism is just like locking oneself in a dark room,” Xi said at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland a few days before Trump was inaugurated. “While wind and rain may be kept outside, so are light and air. No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.”
Intriguingly, both men speak the truth, trade experts say.
“Trump is actually correct in many cases,” said Len Trevino, director of Florida Atlantic University’s international business programs.
China indeed uses a variety of sharp-elbowed tactics to create advantages for its export-based economy. It has been accused of a predatory pricing tactic known as dumping, and even as China has become manufacturer to the world, Xi doesn’t exactly welcome foreign companies into China’s domestic market.
“They have pursued a whole host of unfair trade practices,” Ratner said. “That is a fact.”
In response, Trump vowed to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. However, Trump hasn’t followed through on that promise — perhaps a nod to the reality that international trade policy is more nuanced than Trump acknowledged on the campaign trail.
“If we just slap a 45 percent tariff down, we know what happens,” Trevino said. “Everyone else does the same thing. That’s what led to the Great Depression.”
While Trump’s brand of populist protectionism won him the election, the fortunes of the U.S. and its trading partners have grown intertwined.
“If everybody wants to make their country great again, it’s a zero-sum game,” Trevino said. “You can’t just pursue making your country great again and not making everybody else’s country great.”
The tension between Beijing and Washington predates Trump’s election, and China watchers see the two nations remaining both trading partners and economic rivals.
“It’s likely China will make some concessions,” Ratner said. “But whether they’re sufficient to head off a much more confrontational relationship is anybody’s guess.”
June Teufel Dreyer, a professor of political science at the University of Miami, sees little possibility for compromise.
“I don’t see that either one of them is in a position to yield very much,” Dreyer said. “Trump needs a victory after his defeat on health care. And Xi Jinping has his own problems back home. The economy is slowing, and there’s a lot of domestic opposition in China to his attempt to centralize too much power in his own hands.”
While trade dominated Trump’s campaign pronouncements on China, the looming nuclear threat posed by North Korea is likely to top the president’s list of priorities now, experts say. Xi and Trump agree that North Korea is a bad actor, but they disagree on how to contain dictator Kim Jong-un.
China favors negotiation, while the U.S. prefers sanctions.
“China doesn’t want North Korea to lash out with aggression, or to collapse,” Ratner said.
And as much as China dislikes North Korea’s erratic behavior, it’s not especially keen on a reunified Korea, which would mean sharing a border with South Korea’s pro-American regime.
“China has preferred to keep North Korea there as a buffer state to keep American influence at bay,” Ratner said.
Trump and Xi are likely to continue to disagree about China’s strong-arm tactics in the South China Sea, where China has muscled out Vietnam and has built islands that China claims are part of its natural borders. The move threatens the shipping lanes used by Americans, South Koreans and others, but China has proven oblivious to objections.
“Xi Jinping has already legitimized the building of these artificial reefs,” Dreyer said.
With little room for compromise on any of the items on their agenda, Trump and Xi are likely to complete their visit by issuing a bland but meaningless pronouncement about their willingness to work together, Dreyer predicted.
“Trump cannot afford to back off,” she said, “and I don’t see Xi backing off.”