President Donald Trump will soon meet with Chinese leadership in the U.S. to discuss the future of one of the world’s most important and meaningful bilateral relationships.
Trump will host Chinese President Xi Jinping at his home in Mar-a-Lago on April 6 and 7. The meeting is “fraught with risk,” assert Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation, and Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stumbled in his recent meeting with Chinese leadership in Beijing by parroting Chinese rhetoric. Tillerson appeared to acknowledge China’s proposal for a “new type of major-country relations” by stating America’s commitment to a bilateral relationship be built on “non-confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and … win-win solutions,” the four main terms of China’s proposal for a new geopolitical framework that puts China and the U.S. on equal footing and seems to indicate a demand for the U.S. to respect important Chinese interests while offering limited concessions in return.
“The Chinese pay very close attention to language associated with every meeting and statement,” Cheng and Lohman write, adding that Trump “should familiarize himself with certain Chinese negotiating methods, focus on key messages, and avoid key pitfalls.” China understands the game and plays it well. “The Chinese know their talking points, and will stick to them. They have no problem repeating those talking points ad infinitum.”
Tillerson’s mistake in Beijing largely stemmed from the fact that the new administration is without several strata of staffers in multiple agencies and has yet to formulate a China policy. Trump has identified some of areas where he has concerns — such as currency manipulation, trade, the militarization of disputed waters, and China’s ongoing support for the North Korean regime, but good policy takes time to develop properly.
“In the ideal situation, the Trump Administration would have waited to invite President Xi to the U.S. until more expertise is in place and more legwork can be done ahead,” the experts at the Heritage Foundation explained. Instead, the administration may be heading into negotiations with a piecemeal plan, which suggests that Trump may need to err on the side of caution in discussions with Xi.
During the upcoming meeting, China will likely attempt to establish certain guiding principles for the relationship, such as those outlined in the “new type of major-country relations.”
The Chinese president will come to the U.S. seeking clear results, specifically the protection of China’s “core interests.” China wants the U.S. to accept Chinese dominance in the East and South China Sea, abandon Taiwan, and allow regional alliances to fray.
If they detect any agreement or acknowledgement on Trump’s part, “the Chinese will exploit those principles in subsequent negotiations and meetings, in order to portray the U.S. as violating agreements and China as upholding them,” Cheng and Lohman argue, adding that Trump should state clearly that America will defend its own interests, which include “U.S. commitment to its allies, commitment to enforcing the international rules of trade, and protection of freedom of the seas.”
The Heritage experts assert that Trump should avoid substantive commitments or agreements and should instead focus on conveying a message that while the U.S. and China have certain differences, China need not be the enemy. They argue that “it is essential for President Trump to avoid creating a precedent that will straitjacket him or successors in the future.”
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