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Face-to-face at Mar-a-Lago, Trump and Xi will put their chemistry to the test

Modes of thought

Xi has reason to feel confident as he meets Trump in Florida. But the leaders' dramatically distinct personalities – and definitions of 'diplomacy' – may be the most important wild card. 

A woman watches a TV news program reporting about the first summit between U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, at Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday, April 6, 2017. The letters read "Summit, Donald Trump - Xi Jinping."
Lee Jin-man/ AP
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Caption

Chinese President Xi Jinping has ample reason to arrive at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on Thursday with confidence. Despite some early scares from President Trump – to say nothing of his campaign rhetoric – China has largely managed to maintain the upper hand in what is arguably the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Mr. Xi stared down Mr. Trump when he wavered on support for the One China policy, and the White House appears to have backed off trade-related threats, such as levying a heavy tariff on Chinese imports.

But as they meet at Mar-a-Lago, two dramatically distinct styles are going to be on display. Xi is restrained and methodical in his approach to foreign policy. He prizes stability above all else, and is eager to achieve it in China's relationship with the United States. Trump, on the other hand, is famously mercurial, making it difficult for the Chinese to make a firm assessment of him. Meanwhile, the White House has a shortage of China experts, hindering Trump's own ability to read his counterpart.

Xi will be on unfamiliar turf for another reason as well: the high-stakes meeting will take place far from Washington. Initially, Xi's team was reportedly wary of the palm-fronded resort setting, preferring the powerful symbolism of Pennsylvania Avenue to Trump's "Southern White House," with its tony spa services, exclusive dining, and golf – eschewed by Chinese officials, who associate it with corruption. 

It all adds up to a meeting in which the Chinese leader could be tested by Trump’s disdain for usual procedures.

“We still don’t really know Trump,” says Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai. 

Still, Xi’s patience through the first two-and-a-half months of the Trump presidency has paid off, Dr. Shen says. 

The Chinese leader can already claim important wins. Following Mr. Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, Mr. Xi refused to speak with the new American president by phone until he agreed to affirm the One China policy. Trump relented in February. Then, in March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recited Xi’s often-used language about “mutual respect” and “win-win solutions” between the US and China in his first official visit to Beijing. Trump also appears to have backed off, for now, his campaign pledges to label China a currency manipulator and to impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports.

Much is riding on how the two men get along. Yet many of their most ambitious policies are at odds with one another. A key pillar of Trump’s “America First” agenda is forcing China to negotiate fairer trade and investment deals. As for Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, challenging the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region is also a major objective.

Both are under pressure to project a strong image to their domestic supporters, an especially important task for Xi as he looks to further consolidate his power ahead of a Communist Party leadership meeting later this year. Stability on all fronts is critical as he prepares to make the painful decisions needed to reform China’s slowing economy.

“Xi Jinping wants to use this summit to show the Chinese people that he’s a great leader who can deal with Trump,” says Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, and an adviser to China’s State Council. “He wants to prove that he can guide Sino-US relations into the future.” 

Trump’s challenge will be to match his tough talk with visible progress on two key issues: North Korea and trade. But analysts say Trump's reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator may have been undermined since he backed down on the Taiwan issue. The episode taught the Chinese leadership to view Trump’s provocations with a heavy dose of skepticism.   

With trade likely to remain off the table until the White House completes a 90-day review of US trade deficits it announced last week, North Korea could be the first test for Xi and Trump.

The North Korea factor

The stakes were raised on Wednesday when the North conducted its latest ballistic missile test. US officials said the launch was a failure, but it underscores the growing threat posed by the isolated nation – and the urgent need for cooperation between the US and China to help resolve it.

Trump ratcheted up his rhetoric on the issue recently when he told the Financial Times in an interview that China “will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won't. And if they do that will be very good for China, and if they don’t it won’t be good for anyone.”

He delivered an ultimatum: rein in the North or the US will take unilateral action. He presumably meant by curbing trade and assistance, but his administration has also made veiled threats of a possible military strike.

Zhao Hai, a research fellow at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University, says Xi needs to ensure Trump that China is willing to work with the US on North Korea and that acting unilaterally will do more harm than good.

“Trump has displayed a very tough stance and said some very tough words,” Mr. Zhao says. “But at the end of the day it all comes down to what’s practical. I expect both men to develop a common understanding when they meet and come up with workable solutions.”  

Although China is North Korea’s main political and economic partner, Beijing has long argued that it is ultimately up to Washington to bring an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. The Chinese are reluctant to punish the North too harshly for fear of triggering a regime collapse that could lead to a unified Korean Peninsula dominated by the US military. 

Experts say North Korea could be within several years of developing a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the continental US. While Xi and Trump meet face-to-face for the first time Florida, they are surely well aware that time is running out.