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Trump's G20 meeting with Xi a crossroads for U.S.–China policy

China's President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump (L-R front) shake hands during a meeting outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
President Xi Jinping and President Trump shake hands during a meeting outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on November 9, 2017. Photo: Artyom Ivanov/TASS via Getty Images

The consequences of President Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Argentina this weekend will extend far beyond trade. Whatever the president says for a domestic political audience or to calm markets will be watched closely, from Europe to Asia.

Why it matters: Any successful U.S. strategy to establish guardrails for China’s rise will rely heavily on U.S. allies, who are making their own calculations about American staying power and resolve. Many regional partners were disturbed by the optics of Trump's first meeting with Xi at Mar-a-Lago in April 2017 — after which Trump claimed to have "a terrific relationship with Xi" — and his visit to China that November, when he tweeted about his "unforgettable" time.

The Trump administration has called Beijing a "strategic competitor" and "a revisionist power," a marked change from the engagement of its predecessors. Vice President Pence has also taken on a prominent role confronting China’s political and economic influence and human-rights abuses.

Yes, but: Trump himself has used his bully pulpit primarily to attack China’s unfair economic practices. He spoke of the need to "decouple" the U.S. and Chinese economies during the 2016 primary, and in office has imposed tariffs of hundreds of billions of dollars on Chinese imports, citing intellectual property theft and his desire for "a fair deal."

Trump may ease his rhetoric in an effort to preserve economic gains from a strong stock market and job creation during his tenure. That would be shortsighted, though, as China seems unwilling to make concessions to address its intellectual property theft and other unfair economic practices, while doing little to assist with North Korea's stalled denuclearization process.

The greater danger, however, is that Trump's rhetoric around the Xi meeting could undermine his administration's tough-sounding strategies and policies, just as his engagements with Vladimir Putin have conflicted with his administration's Russia policy. Key partners such as Japan and India have softened their tone toward Beijing, while European states have struggled to reconcile their mounting frustrations with China with their uncertainty about Trump’s strategy.

The bottom line: Trump will face a choice in Buenos Aires: Side with the rest of his administration and endorse the growing competition with China; or, as with Russia, remain a discordant note in the international chorus in the interest of short-term political goals.

Jamie Fly is senior fellow and director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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