All eyes will be on Palm Beach, Florida, Thursday as the long-awaited meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to begin at Trump's luxurious 118-room Mar-A-Lago retreat.
The highly anticipated meeting has been compared to a blind date, yet the encounter between the highly temperamental former real estate mogul and the statesmanlike “core leader” of the Communist Party of China will set the tone for a relationship of major importance to the entire world: that between a declining United States and a rising China.
The meeting comes amid rising tensions in the Korean peninsula, an ongoing dispute in the South China Sea and diverging views on trade policies, with Beijing positioning itself as a champion of globalization and the White House upholding an “America First” approach that many fear could lead to a damaging trade war between the two sides.
The Challenge on the Korean Peninsula
Trump has already given strong signals that he plans to pressure Xi on recent weapons tests by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which launched a missile early Wednesday morning in a defiant gesture toward the U.S. and its South Korean and Japanese allies that drew a menacing response from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: "The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment."
“China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t,” the U.S. president said in an interview earlier this week with Financial Times. “And if they do that will be very good for China, and if they don’t it won’t be good for anyone,” Trump continued, adding that the U.S. is prepared to unilaterally “solve North Korea” and is “totally” able to resolve the issue without help from China.
"The clock is very, very quickly running out," a Washington official said to Reuters. "All options are on the table for us."
Nevertheless, while the U.S. has raised a furor over North Korea's attempts to bolster its arsenal, Beijing has raised sharp concerns over the placement of an advanced U.S. anti-missile system — Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD — in South Korea. While the U.S. claims that THAAD is necessary to protect Seoul from North Korea, Beijing views the deployment as going far beyond South Korean defense needs, boosting U.S. capabilities for looking deep into Chinese territory and blunting China's “second-strike” capability in case of a nuclear confrontation with the U.S.
Chinese experts have looked askance at U.S. excuses for the anti-missile system's placement, noting that the DPRK hardly presents a strategic threat to Washington while the long-term geopolitical interests of the U.S. are best-served by containing its primary rival: China.
Many are hoping that the two presidents walk away from Trump's “Winter White House” with a coordinated plan to peacefully resolve what could become the largest crisis East Asia has seen since the Korean War, but this will require a recognition of Chinese interests in the peninsula that administration officials have so far not publicly acknowledged.
Divergent Views on Trade
During Trump's campaign run for president, the former reality star struck a sensationalistic tone on China, casting the world's second-largest economy as a source of U.S. economic woes and infamously claiming that he wouldn't “continue to allow China to rape (the United States)” and steal U.S. jobs. Following Election Day, Trump continued to press China's buttons, saying that U.S. recognition of the One-China Policy — the question of Chinese sovereignty over the Taiwanese breakaway province — would hinge on a potential trade deal.
Since the U.S. president's Jan. 20 inauguration, Trump has taken the advice of economic experts and backed off from more inflammatory rhetoric regarding Chinese trade.
Others, however, are giving positive reinforcement to Trump's tough-talking style.
"China and others need to realize the games are over — continuing their unfair trade practices and operation as a non-market economy will have serious consequences,” the U.S. Commerce Department said regarding Beijing's trade practices.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang stressed the need for rationality and the preservation of mutually beneficial U.S.-China trade policies: "The market dictates that interests between our two countries are structured so that you will always have me and I will always have you … Both sides should work together to make the cake of mutual interest bigger and not simply seek fairer distribution."
Another Waypoint in a Long Journey
Trump enters the negotiation weighed down by baggage on the home-front, as controversy swirls around the White House regarding informal pre-inaugural contacts with Russia, scandals embroiling his Cabinet members and the abrupt removal of top advisor Steve Bannon from the National Security Council.
Xi, however, is a career administrator and Communist Party general-secretary who is considered a “core leader” of the party, secure in his position by any measure.
“If a shake-up takes place between the two sides, Washington may not be as prepared as Beijing,” Chinese state newspaper Global Times noted in an editorial released Thursday. “Further internal divisions within the U.S. society will make it more challenging for Trump to unite the whole of American society and thwart his ambition to make America great again.”
Regardless of the outcome of the Xi-Trump encounter, the relationship between a rising China and a United States that seeks to be "Great Again" will remain one of the foremost themes defining global politics for the foreseeable future.