Donald Trump’s hands are a problem. Not the size, of course, as the U.S. President has been very insistent they are the optimum dimensions. It’s more what he does with them when he meets world leaders. With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, there was a 19-second handshake tussle so fierce as to inspire a thousand Internet memes. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came primed and there was an uneasy bout of one-upmanship. When meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump’s hands refused to play at all.
The big question is what Trump’s hands will get up to when they greet Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday. Xi is arriving in Florida for two days of crunch talks at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort following a frosty start to bilateral relations under the new Administration, with Beijing breaking off all top-level contact following Trump’s open questioning of Chinese sovereignty over the self-ruled island of Taiwan. Only when Trump reaffirmed his commitment to “one China” — as that sovereignty principle is known — did the two leaders finally speak on the telephone. For the protocol-conscious Chinese delegation, any tomfoolery like an Abe handshake would not be easily laughed off.
“Nothing would be more stupid by Trump,” says Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Nanjing University. “The Chinese leader is a very serious man. Any tricks that Trump wants to play would be perceived as some sort of humiliation.”
But the dangers of misunderstanding do not end with Trump’s hands. The leaders of the world’s two largest economies bring radically different perspectives and styles to Mar-a-Lago. Officials in China tell TIME that they are palpably anxious about what might transpire. Confirmation of the meeting only came late last week, compared to three weeks in advance for Xi’s visit to Sunnylands in 2013 or seven months for his 2015 visit to the White House. The Chinese President is not even going to stay at Mar-a-Lago but at the Eau Palm Beach Resort nearby, according to local press. The Chinese side reportedly insisted the meeting be somewhere informal — despite Beijing’s fetish of protocol and hierarchy — to avoid the possible embarrassment of a White House Rose Garden press conference without a meaningful joint statement.
Worryingly for China, Trump is a 70-year-old diplomatic tyro who treats such meetings like a business deal. You meet, play golf, have dinner and then talk turkey. But Xi, unlike Abe, does not play golf, nor does he hobnob. Xi may have spent a few months studying agriculture in rural Iowa as a young official, but that was more than three decades ago. Following Trump’s meeting with Abe, the President even pestered the Japanese leader to gatecrash a socialite’s wedding at the club. “If what happened with Abe happens with Xi, they’ll go bananas,” says Professor Nick Bisley, an Asia expert at Australia’s La Trobe University. “You cannot imagine anything more uncomfortable for a guy like Xi Jinping.”
And then there is policy. During his campaign, Trump accused China of “raping” America, and repeatedly vowed to name Beijing a currency manipulator and impose a 45% tariff on Chinese imports. As President-elect, he accepted a phone call from the President of Taiwan, shattering almost four decades of diplomatic protocol. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson then suggested that China should be barred from artificial islands it has built and militarized in the South China Sea. On Thursday, Trump tweeted that the Xi meeting would be “very difficult.”
Of course, each time Xi met with former President Barack Obama there were tensions over myriad issues, such as China’s failure to detain National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden in Hong Kong, U.S. indictments of People’s Liberation Army officers for cyberespionage, as well as long-standing issues like the South China Sea. However, because of the deep diplomatic contacts between both sides, meetings always ended with a raft of agreements. Among them were reciprocal 10-year visas, a code of conduct for unexpected encounters at sea, an agreement for notification of major military activities, and a pledge by China to limit greenhouse-gas emissions.
But it’s unclear what strategic progress could be forged this week. Previously, the leaders of U.S. and China could build common capital on less contentious topics like trade and climate change. But Trump has ripped up global orthodoxy on both of these. Then we add in issues like potential U.S. arm sales to Taiwan, the South China Sea, and respect for legal and human rights. “North Korea is probably the issue on which they can build the most common ground,” says Bisley. “It’s the one where their interests are most closely aligned.”
But a chasm exists between the powers on this issue. Although both Washington and Beijing want to stop North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program, the latter wants to keep the regime functioning to prevent hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into its territory and a united U.S.-allied Korean Peninsula ruled from Seoul. Washington, by contrast, would prefer the Kim dynasty toppled and peaceful reunification. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner; the U.S. has threatened to sanction Chinese businesses doing business with Pyongyang. In order to protect itself and its allies from North Korean rockets, Washington has rolled out THAAD antimissile batteries in South Korea; Beijing deems THAAD an affront and has started targeting South Korean businesses in retaliation. Trump raised the possibility of unilateral action against North Korea in an interview with the U.K.’s Financial Times published on Sunday. “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” he said. “That is all I am telling you.”
Trump is also hamstrung by the huge gaps in his team. He doesn’t have an Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, an Assistant Secretary of Defense, or a confirmed Deputy Secretary or Under Secretaries. Instead, his son-in-law Jared Kushner is reportedly leading preparations. “Who are the China experts? Who are the Asia experts?” asks Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy. “How does Trump deal in depth with Xi Jinping without that backstop?”
Trump is bruised domestically following the failure of his signature health-care reform legislation to pass Congress. It’s unclear whether this will make him conciliatory or prickly. Xi also has domestic travails. He is without a big foreign policy win in the Asia-Pacific, other than warming ties with the Philippines following the election of President Rodrigo Duterte. Elsewhere, Taiwan is more estranged than ever, Japan and South Korea are perturbed by his refusal to deal with Pyongyang, while Australia last week nixed a joint extradition treaty.
But Chinese officials seem most worried about the trade issue. Fortifying China’s already slowing economy is especially important for Xi coming into the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress in the fall. This five-yearly gathering is where brass hats jostle to get their chosen favorites into key jobs. Most members of the Politburo Standing Committee — the nation’s top political body — are set to resign due to an informal age limit, including prominent Xi allies. Xi — who was named a “core leader” like Mao Zedong last year — should also pick his successor. But there is growing speculation that he might break with protocol in one or both these regards, essentially rewriting the nation’s governing precepts. Such bold moves might be derailed by a trade war or other major dispute with the world’s largest economy. “Mr. Xi is in a difficult situation,” says Scott Harold, an East Asia expert with RAND Corp.
It’s quite likely, therefore, that Xi will come to Florida bearing modest, and neatly tweetable, gifts such as manufacturing investment in the American Rust Belt or an order of shiny Boeing jets. In return, Xi may request a fourth communiqué or other statement reaffirming Washington’s commitment to “one China.” That would give Trump some much-needed good news and allow Xi to return home with a tricky foreign policy hurdle negotiated. Anything more meaningful appears doubtful. Says Thayer: “The best we can hope for is that they see each other as genuine and get a sense of what the other is trying to achieve.” And that the U.S. President’s hands agree to behave.