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A New Start?

Chinese analysts are optimistic following the first meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump

By NewsChina Updated Jul.1

In the run-up to the first face-to-face meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump, many expected some kind of showdown between the two leaders. Trump had repeatedly criticized China on trade and North Korea in previous months. But in the event, the summit proved diplomatic, not confrontational.  

Contrary to his prediction that the meeting would be “very difficult,” Trump said that the two sides “have made tremendous progress” in the bilateral relationship and described his personal relationship with Xi as “outstanding.”  

Xi, for his part, described the meeting as “positive and fruitful.” During his meeting with Trump, Xi stressed that there are “a thousand reasons to make the China-US relationship work, and no reason to break it,” and said that he is ready to work with Trump to push forward China-US relations from a “new starting point.”  

On the issue of trade, the two sides agreed to a 100-day plan for trade talks, which US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said will focus on boosting US exports and reducing the trade deficit with China. On North Korea, the two sides agreed to increase cooperation in pressuring Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program, according to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.  

The two leaders also agreed to set up four new dialogue mechanisms, focusing on diplomacy and security; the economy; law enforcement and cybersecurity; and social and people-to-people exchanges. 

However, as the summit did not result in any concrete achievements highlighted by the White House, the meeting has led to a sense of disappointment among some Western analysts. The US strike on Syria, which took place during the summit, also led many to question the significance of the apparently upbeat tone of the Xi-Trump summit. 

A ‘Reset’? 

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan arrive at Palm Beach International Airport in Florida, April 6, 2017, for the first meeting with US President Donald Trump

But for Chinese experts, the perception of the meeting was largely positive. Many consider the event as a success as it injected a certain level of certainty into the China-US relationship after a long period of guessing and speculating on future prospects.  

With an emphasis on consensus and cooperation, the message of the summit generally conformed with Xi’s repeated comments that the nature of the bilateral relationship between the US and China “should and must not” be conflict-based.  

In the past year, China has perceived the rise of Donald Trump with a wary eye. While some are hopeful that Trump’s alleged “isolationism” and self-claimed pragmatism would overhaul the Obama administration’s “pivot-to-Asia” policy and lead to a policy more favorable to China, others were concerned about Trump’s anti-China rhetoric, including threats to raise tariffs on imports from China and to designate China as a currency manipulator.  

Such worries intensified as Trump included several radical conservatives known for their hawkish stance toward China into his cabinet, such as Steve Bannon, who predicted a war between the US and China in the next decade. Trump threatened to ditch the One China policy shortly after assuming the presidency, and proposed a major rise in military spending, causing concerns to peak.  
Therefore, the non-confrontational tone of the Xi-Trump summit proved a serious relief for China. Professor Zheng Yongnian, Director of the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, for example, argued that the message of the summit is that the Trump administration would neither adopt the highly-ideologically-driven policy of the Obama administration, nor a containment policy towards China advocated by anti-China figures close to the administration such as Michael Pillsbury and Peter Navarro.  

Zheng even compared the Xi-Trump meeting with the historical meeting between Mao Zedong and then US president Richard Nixon in 1972, which marked a U-turn in the US policy towards China and paved the way for the normalization of the relationship between the two countries.  

“When Henry Kissinger recalled the meeting between Nixon and Mao in his memoirs, he said the two leaders did not talk about specific issues. What they talked about was philosophy, world views and methodologies, and this is what talks at the highest level should be,” Zheng told NewsChina.  

Zheng argued that like the meeting between Mao and Nixon, the Xi-Trump summit can act as a reset for the bilateral relationship between the two countries, as Trump appears to be willing to take a pragmatic approach to China. Zheng said that under such an approach, it is possible for the two countries to engage in what he called “a grand negotiation,” talks that can address the fundamental direction of the bilateral relationship.  

For Zheng and many other Chinese experts, a major reason behind the many problems between the two countries is the Obama administration’s highly ideological-driven policy and highly condescending stance towards China, which made it very difficult for China to cooperate with the US.  

With a more pragmatic approach, Zheng said the US and China could make major achievements under the Trump administration. “The two countries have realized that they could not achieve anything if they do not cooperate, but will achieve a lot if they choose to cooperate.” 

Zheng’s view was partially shared by Su Ge, President and a Senior Research Fellow of the China Institute of International Studies. Su said China now has more capability to shape the American policy towards China, adding that the Xi-Trump meeting “sends a message that the two countries are willing to manage their disputes and increase their cooperation based on the principle of mutual respect.” 

According to Su, compared to the Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the two countries set up under the Obama administration, the four new dialogue mechanisms Xi and Trump agreed to establish cover a wider range of issues, which would lead to more thorough communication between the two sides. Both Zheng and Su are optimistic about the future development of the China-US relationship.  

North Korea and Beyond 

A man walks past a television report on a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul, April 5, 2017

For other Chinese experts, besides its symbolic significance, the Xi-Trump summit also made important progress on issues that could potentially help to address the strategic distrust between the two countries in the long run.  

For example, Sun Xingjie, a political scientist at Jilin University said in an interview with Duowei News, an overseas Chinese media outlet, that the biggest achievement of the Xi-Trump summit is that the two sides have reached “a consensus that no matter what happens to the Korean Peninsula, the two countries will avoid direct military conflict.” 

Prior to the summit, China had strongly criticized US military activities round the Korean Peninsula, leading to much speculation over China’s reaction if conflict erupts in the region. On China’s social media, there have long been discussions about the possibility of a second “War to Resist America and Aid Korea,” as the Korean War is officially called in China.  

According to Sun, through the summit, China sent a clear message, both in the US and at home, and particularly to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, that there would be no military aid from China if war erupted.  

Indeed, after the summit, there seemed to be a subtle change in Beijing’s rhetoric over the North Korea issue. Contrary to Beijing’s routine protests regarding US military activities in the region, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and major state media have been rather quiet on the recent supposed US military maneuvers in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula.  

Instead of criticizing the US, the Global Times, a state-owned and hawkish nationalist newspaper, even warned that if North Korea made another provocative move, China may adopt unprecedented sanctions, “such as restricting oil imports.” 

Also, on April 12, after returning to China, Xi made a phone call to Trump, specifically on North Korea, during which Xi said that China is “committed to the target of denuclearization on the [Korean] peninsula,” and is willing to maintain “communication and coordination” with the US, which Sun said was an unprecedentedly cooperative tone for China.  

Moreover, to the surprise of many, China decided to abstain in a vote on a UN resolution regarding use of chemical weapons in Syria, which analysts said reflected the goodwill established between the two leaders during the summit. China has previously used its veto on Syrian votes six times, but this time Russia was left to veto the action alone. 

For Sun, China’s recent actions are in line with Xi’s statements in his meeting with Trump that the future of the bilateral relationship in the next 40 to 50 years needs the leaders on both sides to “make a political judgement” and “take historical responsibility.”  

“Political judgement” means the two leaders need to decide whether they see the other country as an enemy or a partner, Sun said, and by “historical responsibility,” the significance of the bilateral relationship toward the peace and stability of the world. 
According to China’s state news agency Xinhua, Xi has invited Trump to visit China, and Trump is said to have accepted the invitation. It is likely that the “positive chemistry” the leaders of the world’s two largest economies found in their first meeting will continue.  

But as Pyongyang remains defiant and the various issues between the two countries remain unsolved, whether the two countries can really open a new start for the world’s most important bilateral relationship remains a question.