During the two-night stay in Beijing, Trump will hold his third meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, following the Mar-a-Lago visit by Xi in April and G20 talks in June. The two men are arguably meeting at a low and a high point of their respective political careers. Trump, with his administration besieged by allegations of Russia collusion, has an approval rating of just 36 percent – the worst for a US president in modern history. In contrast, Xi was last month elevated to a status akin to that of the PRC’s founding father, Mao Zedong, at a Communist Party congress which approved his second term as its leader.
Trump’s marathon Asian tour is one of the greatest exercises of his personal diplomacy since entering the Oval Office. His previous stops were in Japan and South Korea, and in both countries he rallied the US allies against the threat posed by North Korea, touting multibillion-dollar purchases of US-made military equipment as improving the national security of the buyers and helping fix their trade imbalances with America.
Both issues are prioritized in China as well. The Trump administration has stopped criticizing Beijing for a failure to put pressure on Pyongyang over its controversial drive to obtain nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, and has instead been praising China’s contribution. The accusations of alleged currency manipulation, restriction of market access and intellectual property theft by China have been subdued as well.
Observers expect Beijing to go on a charm offensive, wooing the attention-sensitive, ego-conscious American leader with what is described as an unprecedented “state visit-plus” by Chinese officials and the media. Beijing’s Forbidden City, the former seat of Chinese imperial power, was closed to the public to host the American dignitary.
Some China watchers say Xi will use the meeting to promote his vision of a global future, in which waning superpower America and rising force China agree to refrain from conflict and find a way for peaceful transition. Previous administrations rejected such overtures from Beijing, seeing them as an offer to split the world into Cold War-style zones of influence, with the US withdrawing from Asia.
One bone of contention could be the South China Sea. Beijing perceives the water mass, which is vital for its maritime trade and may become a major source of hydrocarbons in the future, as rightfully belonging to China. It has been backing the stance with large island reclamation projects, military deployments and other measures. The US has been opposing China while not supporting any other nation with a claim over any part of the sea. The US says the area should belong to no one, remaining legally open for America’s own military patrols. This is perceived as potentially dangerous for China’s strategic interests, which depend on unrestricted foreign trade.
The Trump administration has been sending signals that it will maintain an Asian presence, for instance, boosting the so-called freedom of navigation missions in the South China Sea, which are aimed at undermining China’s claims. Some members of the Trump camp have been strongly advocating opposing China on trade. The White House has recently announced its vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” apparently sending a rallying cry for Australia and India to take a stand against rising Chinese clout.
On the other hand, Trump’s chief-of-staff, John Kelly, in a recent Fox News interview indicated that disagreements with China on trade didn’t “make them an enemy” and suggested that its one-party political system was not an issue for Washington. Trump’s own description of Xi as a “king” of China was perceived by some observers as outright flattery.
There is speculation that Trump may be tempted to “pull a Nixon” – strike a policy-changing bargain with Xi just like President Richard Nixon did with his historic 1972 visit to China – or in other words “explore win-win bilateral ties,” as the Chinese press would prefer to put it.