Meeting expectations in China
Donald Trump and Xi Jinping have established strong ties
Expectations that Donald Trump’s visit to Beijing would produce immediate announcements on crucial issues such as North Korea or trade were always naive. International diplomacy does not work that way. What is clear from the warm bonhomie and remarkably positive optics on display between the US President and Xi Jinping, however, is that the world’s two most powerful leaders have established a rapport that holds the prospect of improved cooperation in our region. The symbolism inherent in Mr Xi’s tea reception for Mr Trump in the Forbidden City, a privilege accorded no previous US president, is important. And while there is no shortage of carping critics scoffing at Mr Trump’s talk of the “chemistry” between him and Mr Xi, and his fulsome flattery of the Chinese leader as “a very special man”, Mr Trump knows plenty about the “art of the deal” and winning over a negotiating partner.
What will come of their bonhomie is the key question. It is imperative that Mr Trump and Mr Xi set about building on their “bromance in Beijing” to achieve progress in relation to North Korea and trade. China’s support, alongside Russia, for the UN resolution imposing new sanctions on Pyongyang showed significant movement from its previous unwillingness. The resolution was significantly diluted, however, to gain their support.
Beijing has not cut many of the financial links with North Korea banned under sanctions. It continues to resist cutting off oil supplies on the grounds that Pyongyang’s citizens would freeze. Yet Chinese oil is used primarily to keep North Korea’s military machine going. And as the oil is sent as aid, Pyongyang does not pay for it. China is also selling lumber transporters to North Korea, allegedly for the timber industry, although they are being remodelled into ballistic missile launch vehicles.
The fact Mr Trump and Mr Xi firmly recommitted themselves to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and support for UN sanctions was encouraging. Amid their bonhomie, Mr Trump was frank, even in public, about the need for China to do more — he probably spoke even more bluntly in private. He now must use his relationship with Mr Xi to follow up. It remains to be seen whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s assertion that “there’s no space between both our objectives” on North Korea is borne out. Time will tell whether the “bromance in Beijing” has made a real difference to the crisis.
On trade, Mr Trump has wisely retreated from his campaign rhetoric in which he threatened a trade war and accused China of being a “currency manipulator” engaged in unfair practices that jeopardise US jobs. The signing of $325 billion in new orders for US business should go a long way towards defusing hostility and enabling a new trade relationship to develop.
Mr Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin were expected to meet at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, where the announcement of an agreement on a postwar political solution for Syria was a possibility. As of yesterday afternoon, however, such a meeting appeared less likely. Controversy surrounding allegations of Russian meddling in last year’s US election will add intense interest even to any informal meeting between the pair. North Korea, however, remains the main challenge for Mr Trump, who must maintain unrelenting pressure on Mr Xi to rein in Pyongyang.