SINGAPORE – In ancient times, Chinese emperors never traveled to another country to meet its new ruler. Rather, that ruler, or his envoy, would visit China’s imperial capital to request investiture from the Son of Heaven.
The fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping has traveled thousands of miles to meet US President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, rather than receiving Trump in the Forbidden City, suggests that China recognizes its own status as a lesser power vis-à-vis the United States.
But that does not mean that Xi considers this status to be permanent. On the contrary, he might be anticipating that the two countries’ strategic standing will change very quickly if the US does not do more to preserve its global primacy.
Discussions about China’s rise and America’s relative decline have been ongoing for almost a decade. But the notion that China would replace the US as the dominant global power was not considered plausible – by either the Chinese or observers around the world – until Trump’s presidency.
This new perception could be further reinforced at Mar-a-Lago. Although the event has been presented as an occasion for the two leaders to become personally acquainted, Trump reportedly intends to raise at least three major issues with Xi: America’s massive trade deficit with China, North Korea’s nuclear program, and the territorial disputes between China and US allies in the South China Sea.
Each leader undoubtedly wants the other to make concessions on these issues, so that he can emerge “victorious” from the summit. Trump needs a favorable outcome to compensate for a series of domestic political failures that have severely eroded his political capital and sent his approval ratings to record lows. And Xi wants a diplomatic victory to bolster his political standing ahead of the Communist Party of China’s National Congress in November.
On trade, Trump wants to curtail Chinese exports to the US, presumably by imposing higher tariffs on Chinese goods and pressuring US and international manufacturers to move their production facilities to America. But Trump is unlikely to get his way on this issue. Unilaterally imposing tariffs on Chinese imports would likely trigger trade disputes, invite Chinese retaliation, and hurt US businesses that create wealth – and deliver affordable products to American consumers – by basing their production facilities in China.
A better alternative for Trump would be to persuade China to import more from the US. But making that change would take time for China. And, on the US side of the equation, Trump cannot simply dictate quotas for companies, which must base their decisions on market conditions.
Meanwhile, Trump has implied that he might somehow soften his stance on the trade issue if Xi offers to help rein in the North Korean regime’s nuclear ambitions. But Xi, knowing that he has the upper hand on the trade issue, will not be easily swayed. Instead, he will probably offer China’s cooperation in exchange for the US halting its deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea.
Trump would most likely reject this proposal. And yet he may be overestimating China’s influence over North Korea. The North conducted its recent nuclear and missile tests despite Chinese sanctions, which have halted coal imports from North Korea – the regime’s main revenue source. If China has less control over North Korea than many assume, Xi may be unlikely to offer any strategic concessions to Trump to address the nuclear threat.
The same can be said for the South China Sea issue. China has defined its territorial claims as a “core interest,” which implies that it will use force to defend its position there. Some observers have criticized former US President Barack Obama for being too soft on the issue, because he allowed China to assert its claims unchecked over the past eight years. Yet it is unlikely that Obama could have done anything to stop China without risking a major great-power conflict. Trump also wants to stop China’s strategic encroachments in the South China Sea; but, as his meeting with Xi will prove, his options are as limited as Obama’s were.
Given these constraints, Trump will almost certainly fail to secure a political victory at the summit. Xi, meanwhile, can return home triumphant by simply standing his ground. This likely outcome will further strengthen the view that the US is losing global influence to China, especially among observers in the Asia Pacific region who have watched Trump scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership and cease Obama’s strategic “pivot” to the region.
Owing to the deep divisions within American society, Trump’s isolationist, anti-liberal administration may already lack the political capital and determination to delay, let alone reverse, the momentous shift in global power toward China. That shift will only accelerate further during and after Trump’s presidency, unless major changes are made to retain America’s costly, hard-earned global preeminence.