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Ready, Set, Go!
Presidents' meeting paves the way for further development in China-U.S. relations
By Clifford A. Kiracofe | NO. 15 APRIL 13, 2017
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, arrive on April 6 at Palm Beach International Airport in Florida, the United States, for a two-day meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump (XINHUA)

Beijing and Washington both expect the Mar-a-Lago meeting to move China-U.S. relations forward. Although there are differences on some issues, there are also opportunities for agreement on an overall framework for near term and long term relations.

The day and a half meeting at the fashionable resort in Palm Beach, Florida, opened with a dinner on April 6, hosted by President Donald Trump, and was followed by wide-ranging discussions the next day.

The meeting is a logical follow-up for both countries to the China-U.S. informal meeting hosted by then President Barack Obama in California in June 2013. Occurring at the very beginning of Trump's presidency, it is an opportune "get to know you" visit.

At the 2013 meeting, President Xi Jinping put forward the concept of building China-U.S. relations based on mutual respect, win-win cooperation, non-confrontation and non-conflict. Such a concept is designed to avoid confrontation between major powers and to foster cooperation. The Obama administration agreed to, but did not advance, the concept. Instead, it chose to press ahead with the confrontational "pivot" policy, which was promoted by many think tanks linked to the U.S. military-industrial complex, not to mention hawkish politicians.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during his recent visit to Beijing, initiated the process of arranging the Mar-a-Lago event and was well received by the Chinese side. Tillerson uses the term "framework" to describe the U.S. interest in establishing a constructive relationship between the two countries.

Tillerson's emphasis on establishing a framework with long term vision was emphasized during a press briefing on the eve of the summit by Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton. "He was talking about the two leaders coming together at this summit … to set a new course for U.S.-China relations for the next 40 to 50 years," she said.

The U.S. perspective apparently is in alignment with the Chinese side's desire for a new and constructive relationship. Thus, the prospects for working toward such a goal seem good. Both sides have emphasized the concepts of mutual benefit and mutual respect, which are central to constructive diplomatic engagement.

Basically, the two sides agree that stabilization of relations on a long term basis is essential. Given the changing international situation and the multipolar trend in world affairs, experts in both countries hope for such a development.

Highly provocative actions by North Korea have inevitably placed the Korean Peninsula issue high on the agenda. "The problem has really become very urgent," Thornton said. "It is destabilizing to the entire region and actually further than the region now."

U.S. concern is now deeper than ever, owing to North Korea's development of long-range missile capabilities.

Economic issues also ranked high on the meeting's agenda. During his election campaign, Trump made scathing comments about what he deemed "unfair" Chinese trade practices and "currency manipulation." But the International Monetary Fund has said that China is not engaging in currency manipulation.

Many countries have difficult and complex trade issues but normally solve them through negotiation or referral to the World Trade Organization. Both tracks are presently being used by China and the U.S.

The investment issue is an important factor in relations. China and the United States are engaged in the process of negotiating a bilateral investment treaty (BIT). With a new administration in Washington now in place, these negotiations can move forward. Not only will the Trump administration have to review the prior negotiations of the Obama administration, it will also have to add its own ideas and requirements.

The China-U.S. Security and Economic Dialogue process has a number of mechanisms relating to trade and economic relations. These can be energized by the new Trump administration, which says it is results oriented.

In the U.S., critics of the Trump administration complained that the Florida venue was not appropriate. These critics have a short memory, given Obama's choice of venue for the previous informal meeting.

An informal format allows leaders to relax and to develop a personal relationship, officials say. "We want to have them establish a good working relationship, so that they can in times of both opportunity and crisis reach out to one another and have a good rapport," Thornton said.

Unlike the 2013 meeting, which Michelle Obama did not attend, the Mar-a-Lago event included both first ladies. Given their mutual deep interest in the arts, establishing positive rapport and common ground should come naturally.

U.S. critics of the Trump administration also faulted the timing of the meeting, saying that it was taking place too soon. But, the president has been meeting a number of world leaders, including the leaders of Japan and the UK, the president of Egypt and the king of Jordan.

It is logical for Trump, who thinks in major power terms, to want to meet China's top leader early on. This would also apply to the Russian president, but domestic U.S. politics interferes with this, as is well known.

The importance of an early meeting cannot be underestimated, officials say. It is designed to "kick off a good relationship at the outset of this administration," Thornton explained.

Critics have said that the Trump administration does not yet have a full blown China policy, so the meeting should have been delayed. Such criticism ignores the fact that there are very capable professionals at the Department of State and in the U.S. embassy team in Beijing to advise the new administration. Additional expertise on tap includes experienced professionals in the intelligence community and in key government departments such as Treasury and Commerce.

Although various hawks in the Trump campaign interfered with the smooth development of China relations at the beginning of the administration, this problem was overcome. Such advisors, in concert with the influential Taiwan lobby, attempted to poison the atmosphere between Beijing and Washington.

Diplomacy on the Chinese side, reportedly combined with a timely, behind-the-scenes helping hand from President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, repaired the damage. This then led to the possibility of holding a meeting at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's "Southern White House."

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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