It’s still not clear what exactly Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping agreed to in Buenos Aires during the G-20 summit in early December. Although Trump said the two had made a “big leap forward” in resolving the trade dispute, both the substance and the timing of next actions remain in doubt. The U.S. accounts of the results of the meeting were significantly more specific than the Chinese post-meeting announcements.
If that reminds you of Trump’s sitdown with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore earlier this year, it should. Trump approached the much hyped summit with assurances that Korean denuclearization was a problem only he could solve and that success depended on the quality of his relationship with the man across the table. As the meeting ended, Trump hailed it as an historic success. Kim had much less to say. Trump continues to insist the Korea problem has largely been solved, even as U.S. intelligence reportedly produces evidence that North Korea is moving forward with its weapons programs.
Trump has likewise presented himself as the only leader tough enough to force China to play fair on trade. In the days after the G-20 meeting, he offered assurances on Twitter that he and Xi have a “very strong and personal”relationship, while threatening to play “Tariff Man” if future negotiations fail.
Donald Trump is far from the only world leader who says China isn’t playing fair on trade and investment. Other governments have complained that China buys much less than it sells, that state subsidies for Chinese companies give them an unfair competitive advantage and that China steals intellectual property. Even -policymakers who don’t like Trump know he’s right about China’s drive to protect its privileges while exerting ever more economic and political influence in Asia and beyond.
The risk is that Trump—-increasingly embattled at home by midterm election setbacks and a new Democratic Party majority in the House, plus expectations that special counsel Robert Mueller is preparing to show his work—will look for foreign policy wins that aren’t really there.
And even if Trump is successful in forcing some changes in China’s behavior and restoring balance to the U.S.-China commercial relationship, there’s a more serious long-term problem: the biggest issue that divides the two governments—China’s encroaching global ambition—is effectively off the table.
Xi has made clear that he will not approve any economic plan that he believes might undermine the Communist Party’s power or create instability inside China. So whatever concessions he might offer Trump, he will not loosen the leadership’s grip on China’s economic development. State-owned companies will still help the government generate economic growth and maintain jobs. The state will continue to use cash and political clout to boost China’s private sector.
In addition, China will expand its Belt and Road development strategy of large-scale investment in foreign countries, extending Beijing’s economic and political influence abroad as the U.S. long-term commitment to its regional allies wavers. More important, Xi will continue to protect plans that allow China to compete for access to, and development of, the emerging information and communication technologies crucial for both national security and prosperity in the 21st century.
For Xi, these things are nonnegotiable, no matter the skill of the dealmaker seated across the diplomatic dinner table.