Xi visits Trump on his home turf: Who will strong-arm whom?

Trump has trade and North Korea on his mind as he hosts the Chinese leader at his Mar-a-Lago resort. It remains to be seen, analysts say, whether Trump is being overly deferential to Xi or planning an iron-fist-in-glove treatment.

Lynne Sladky/AP
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left walks with Chinese president Xi Jinping at the Palm Beach International Airport, Thursday, April 6, 2017, in West Palm Beach, Fla. Xi will meet with President Donald Trump for a two-day summit at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.

When President Trump invited China’s President Xi Jinping to two days of informal discussions at his exclusive Mar-a-Lago resort, the Chinese leader was on board – up to a point.

There would be no golf, the Chinese stipulated, noting that the Communist Party Mr. Xi leads condemns golf as a game of millionaires and corruption – and that Xi had overseen the closure of a number of Chinese golf clubs.

So when the two chiefs of what many consider to be the world’s most important bilateral relationship meet for the first time face to face Thursday, it will be on Mr. Trump’s turf – but there will be none of the game he favors for such getting-to-know-you sessions.

More significant than Trump’s apparent deference to the Chinese over the “no golf” optics of the visit, however, is the possible departure from a staple of high-level US-Chinese contacts: Washington’s emphasis on human rights. While White House officials insist the subject is still on the agenda, some analysts say it is more likely to be downplayed.

Trump’s invitation of Xi to his private retreat – and so early in his presidency – demonstrates the importance he places on getting the US-China relationship right for his priority issues, from trade to North Korea, some analysts say.

The Chinese, too, wanted to get US-China relations under Trump started on stable footing, given Xi’s critical domestic political agenda. The Chinese leader aims to consolidate his power at a pivotal Party Congress later this year.

But at the same time, what some see as a “rush” to host Xi at Mar-a-Lago is also seen as another sign of Trump’s attraction to the strongman model of leadership and to some of the world’s more authoritarian leaders.

Indeed Trump is greeting Xi the same week he welcomed to the White House Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – a former general who took power following a violent coup. Mr. Sisi may have been persona non grata in President Barack Obama’s White House over the Egyptian regime’s myriad rights abuses, but Trump beamed as he declared the US “very much behind” Sisi, whom he lauded for “doing a fantastic job in a difficult situation.”

What Trump has in mind

Given Trump’s stated admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and other authoritarians like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, some analysts say Xi’s Mar-a-Lago invite risks looking overly deferential to another member of the strongman club. But they caution that Trump, by drawing the Chinese leader to his comfort zone, may have another objective in mind.

“On the one hand, by hosting Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, President Trump is treating [Xi] with what some might call too much respect,” says Michael Auslin, a resident scholar specializing in Asia at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

“But just by coming to the US, Xi is already on Trump’s home ground, and by doing this at his resort, Trump is taking it a step farther,” he says. “We’ll have to wait to see if it’s respect or if it’s an iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove type thing.”

Indeed, Trump gave every indication during the campaign and before taking office of going the iron-fist route once in the Oval Office. He told cheering supporters that China’s “rape” of the US economy was about to end, promised a 45-percent tariff on Chinese imports, and suggested he might rethink the US commitment to the “One China” policy in favor of closer relations with Taiwan.

Most recently, Trump tweeted that the US would consider acting unilaterally against North Korea’s advancing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs if China didn’t start doing more to rein in its belligerent neighbor. In another tweet, he warned that the Mar-a-Lago talks would be “difficult.”

Still, Trump ended up reaffirming the One China policy in a phone call with Xi, and he has remained silent on the pledge to slap high tariffs on Chinese goods – apparently as warring White House economic advisers have alternately advised a get-tough or a more cooperative approach to China.

A test of strong wills

Trump’s mixed messaging on China coupled with Xi’s willingness to travel to Trump’s home turf has some analysts predicting the informal summit will be a test of strong wills and negotiating strategies among the Florida resort’s palms and pastels.

“I suspect that Xi is a very confident fellow, and probably thinks he’s going to come in and sort of get one over on President Trump,” says Christopher Johnson, a former CIA China analyst who now holds the Freeman chair in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. And “I suspect President Trump thinks he’s going to get one over on President Xi,” he adds, “so it will be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out.”

Some US-China analysts express bewilderment that Trump agreed to any summit with Xi so early in his presidency and before his China team is in place. That leads some to speculate that if either leader comes out of the meetings a winner, it’s likely to be Xi.

“I do worry a little bit about a risky scenario where, frankly, we – the United States – get rolled by the Chinese because we are unprepared,” Mr. Johnson says.

One possible strategy from Xi would be to arrive prepared to offer enough vague pledges on North Korea and trade while pressing for specific items China wants, some analysts say.

“The Chinese are likely to come with a list of what they want to get done, and if they sense the folks across from them are not ready, I think there’s a danger the administration can be forced onto the back foot,” adds Dr. Auslin, who recently published “The End of the Asian Century.”

Human rights

With Trump focusing on North Korea and China’s impact on American jobs, while reacting to Xi’s own list of hoped-for takeaways, one casualty of the Mar-a-Lago discussions is likely to be the spotlight the US usually places on China’s human rights record in such meetings.

US officials speaking in the run-up to Xi’s visit insisted human rights would be on the agenda.

“Human Rights will of course be raised in the context of the US-China summit,” said Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, at a briefing with State Department reporters this week. The US side would raise its concerns about freedom of expression and religious freedom, because “it is who we are.”

But some analysts say human rights is likely to be at least downplayed – as it has been so far in other first-encounters Trump has had with world leaders, and especially as Trump meets leaders with the kind of strongman qualities he has repeatedly suggested he admires.

In a recent report analyzing what to expect from Xi in the months ahead of the fall Party Congress, the Council on Foreign Relations said the Chinese leader could be expected to “intensify his personality cult, crack down even harder on dissent, and grow bolder in using the anticorruption campaign against elites who oppose him.”

That description sounds a lot like another “strong” leader Trump has lauded – Mr. Putin. It also suggests that even as Xi smiles for Chinese media cameras in the Palm Beach sun, he’ll be focused on coming off as anything but soft to his host.

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