Two of the most powerful men in the world are about to hold meetings spread across two days.
President Xi Jinping of China – a highly experienced and astute diplomat and political operative – will encounter US President Donald Trump, someone who could not be more different – a businessman who only got involved in politics less than two years ago.
Here’s my checklist of what to watch during the Florida visit.
1. North Korea
The latest missile test by Pyongyang took place only this week. Experts believe North Korea is getting closer to being able to fire a “nuclear tipped” long range missile, that could potentially target the West Coast of the US. At a recent briefing, a senior White House official said, “I can tell you that it is now urgent. The clock has now run out, and all options are on the table for us.”
China is the country that has the most leverage over the erratic and isolated leadership of North Korea, and it is unhappy with Kim Jong-un’s bellicose behaviour. Trump may try to persuade Xi to adopt much tighter economic sanctions. Diplomats believe these could be made to really bite, as China is by far North Korea’s largest trading partner. The problem is that in the end the US and China have very different views of their preferred outcome. While the US would love to see the collapse of North Korea, China views that scenario as a nightmare.
This has moved up my list in the last 36 hours. When he was standing next to Jordan’s King Abdullah in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, President Trump said he was changing his view of the Assad regime. He has asked the Pentagon for a range of options, and has told members of Congress that he is seriously contemplating military action. Such action would almost certainly have to be carried out without UN Security Council endorsement. China becomes important when considering the diplomatic fallout from any military operation. Russia would strongly object, and in the past, China has mostly stood behind Russia on this issue.
Throughout last year’s election campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly condemned China’s trade policies. Among his incendiary statements he said, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.” Trump pledged to label China a currency manipulator on the first day of his administration. In recent weeks, the language seems to have softened. Many attribute this to a series of meetings between the Chinese ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
But it is clear Trump probably still believes the campaign rhetoric, telling the Financial Times only last week, “when you talk about currency manipulation, when you talk about devaluations, they are world champions. And our country hasn’t had a clue.” White House officials are predicting warm words between the two leaders in public, but tough talking behind the scenes.
4. One China/Taiwan
Trump’s relations with China got off to a bumpy start, just days after he was elected in November. He took a congratulatory call from Tsai Ing-wen, the leader of Taiwan, an island that does not have formal diplomatic ties with the US. China saw this as a breach of the long standing “One China” policy – the agreement that the US recognises the government in Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China.
In December, in a phone call with President Xi, it was a rare moment when Trump backed down, saying he would after all be following the “One China” doctrine.
5. South China Sea/ Maritime
Chinese activity in the South China Sea worried many of the US allies in the region. China has turned reefs in the sea into reinforced militarised islands. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in a move possibly timed to coincide with the Trump/Xi summit, has ordered his military to fortify up to ten islands within the Spratley’s group that his country controls.
6. Who is taking to China?
Trump has been relying on close advisers with very different views of China. The key architect of the summit seems to have been Jared Kushner. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Beijing last month, but surprised some observers by using key phrases from previous speeches by President Xi in his talking points.
Others in Trump’s orbit are much more confrontational in their approach. Trade envoy Peter Navarro uses language that echoes that of candidate Trump, saying China is committing “economic warfare”. Political strategist Steve Bannon, one of Trump’s closest advisers, goes even further, and says there is likely to be an actual war with China in five to ten years.
7. The Optics
The Chinese system is one that values proper protocol. Trump has had a number of awkward meetings with foreign leaders. He seemed to avoid a handshake with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got a handshake that went on a little too long. Observers in Beijing will be watching the body language, and will note anything that looks like a snub or a loss of face.