On Oct. 24, Chinese President Xi Jinping took the stage at the culmination of the Chinese Communist Party’s pivotal 19th Congress. He spoke of “ending once and for all the miserable plight of old China, which had been bullied by foreign aggressors since the Opium War of 1840, and so walking completely out of poverty and weakness.”
When Xi, recently consecrated as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, welcomed his American counterpart Donald Trump to Beijing Wednesday, it wasn’t the host who was itching to complain about narcotics foisted by a rapacious foreign power; a reversal that augurs his vision almost complete.
“The flood of cheap and deadly fentanyl, a synthetic opioid manufactured in China and 50 times stronger than heroin” contributed to losing “at least 64,000 Americans to overdoses” last year alone, Trump told journalists in Washington just two days after the Congress. “In two weeks, I will be in China with President Xi, and I will mention this as a top priority,” he added. “And he will do something about it.”
Trump may want to ask nicely. The relative standing between these leaders has shifted considerably since their last meeting in April. China’s shift from victim to villain in the global opiate crisis is a curiosity, for sure, but it also underscores the Middle Kingdom’s burgeoning clout in economic and world affairs, where it shamelessly puts domestic economic priorities above universal values such as human-rights, democracy and free speech.
China’s ascendancy is stark and only set to grow. At the Congress, Xi proclaimed a “new era” when China “will take center stage in the world.” His Belt and Road Initiative — a trade and infrastructure network tracing the ancient Silk Road — will boost Beijing’s influence beyond its borders just as Trump’s questioning of bedrock principles such as free trade, and toadying to authoritarian regimes, is diminishing Washington’s. Trump might talk tough, but don’t expect Xi to tremble.
“Xi will introduce the ‘new era” to President Trump,” says Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “Xi is in a stronger position now after the 19th Party Congress, so China’s foreign policy is more and more unyielding.”
Not that Xi will be a discourteous host. Air Force One received a red carpet welcome at Beijing airport, including the People’s Liberation Army band and rows of schoolchildren waving Chinese and American flags. In a first for a U.S. President, Xi is expected to treat Trump and First Lady Melania to dinner at the Jianfu Palace of Beijing’s 15th Century Forbidden City, the home of China’s emperors. The two leaders will reportedly shoot the breeze in the Hall of Three Rare Treasures and the study room of Emperor Qianlong. According to China’s Vice-Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang, Trump is being treated to a “State-visit plus” to ensure a “historic success.” It’s a tactic of pragmatic fawning perfected by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“A lot of people realize that Abe has something going by appealing to Trump’s narcissism,” says John Delury, an East Asia expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Trump will have to keep his eye on the prize. North Korea and unfair trade practices will top the agenda, as they did at the leader’s first summit at Mar-a-Lago in April, when there was a lot of gushing rhetoric but little accomplished. For all Trump’s vitriol about China “raping” the U.S. during his combustive campaign, the four-track comprehensive dialogue mechanism, including a 100-day action plan for economic cooperation, unveiled in Florida hasn’t really gone anywhere.
Xi’s pledge to allow U.S. credit cards access to China has hit roadblocks, even if U.S. beef has made a belated return to Chinese shelves. Trump hasn’t taken aim at China’s $350 billion trade deficit other than slapping anti-dumping tariffs on aluminum foil. China will commit to buy more U.S. soybeans during Trump’s visit, a U.S. industry official said Tuesday, but the sticking points will be unfettered access to closed sections of China’s economy, particularly financial services.
“There will be some deliverables in terms of deals struck but I don’t expect any major progress in terms of structural reform in China that would provide greater access for U.S. companies,” says Elizabeth Economy, a China specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The North Korea crisis festers despite Xi upping economic pressure on Pyongyang. But Xi will never squeeze too hard given that the collapse of the Kim Jong Un regime would be a strategic and security catastrophe on China’s border. Trump doesn’t seem to grasp that. “President Xi has been very helpful,” Trump told reporters at Seoul’s Blue House Tuesday. “China is trying very, very hard to solve the problem with North Korea.”
But, crucially, since Xi’s ascension to the zenith of Chinese politics, he has even less inclination to put regional interests above China’s own. Trump may have had more luck exerting pressure at Mar-a-Lago, when Xi’s political future was up in the air and he was doggedly trying to avoid embarrassment. By contrast, Trump today is dealing with the arrest of senior former aides related to Russian meddling in his election victory, an inability to push any meaningful legislation through Congress, and an approval rating that has dipped to a dismal 37%.
He still has some strength at his disposal, as China’s exposure to U.S. trade is much greater than the reverse. Even if China’s economy is growing faster, America remains the world’s number one economy. Trump will need to “let the Chinese know this is an administration whose tolerance is diminishing,” says Economy, “signaling its unhappiness and willingness to get tougher.” But as the world’s most powerful man, playing with home advantage, Xi is unlikely to falter now — even if he is put off his game by a Trump curveball. “Mr. Trump always says something to embarrass people,” says Shi, of Renmin University. “Not sometimes, but always.”
—With reporting by Yang Siqi/Beijing