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Trump-Xi Summit, a Month Later – So What and What’s Next?

By Tuan N. Pham

Who came out relatively stronger from the summit, what are the ramifications for the U.S.-China relations, what to expect when Trump visits China next, and where are the U.S. strategic opportunities?  

The heavily choreographed Trump-Xi Summit held on April 6-7 seemed more about atmospherics than substance and did not yield any concrete accomplishments beyond pledges of increased cooperation, new frameworks for dialogue, and a state visit to Beijing by President Trump later in the year. One month later, as the dust settles and more disclosures are made, what can be said now of the summit, and more importantly, so what and what’s next?

Part 1 of this two-part series outlined the perceived and actual outcomes from a Chinese, American, and international perspective. With this as a backdrop, Part 2 now discusses which leader came out relatively stronger, the ramifications for the U.S.-China strategic relations, what to expect when Trump visits China later in the year, and finally where the strategic opportunities lie for the U.S. and how Washington can leverage them.

Who Came Out On Top?

On the whole, Trump came out relatively stronger than Xi in terms of managing expectations and creating and shaping favorable visuals. From the beginning, Xi pressed for an early summit in the hopes that by acting first and boldly, he could seize the strategic initiative and set parameters for the new U.S. president who had yet to fully form his national security team and settle on his China policy. Xi’s advance team pushed hard for exacting protocol demands to make sure that Xi appeared to be a strong and resolute leader who could hold his own against the U.S. president on a global stage, and for China to project an international image of a rising global power that is equal in stature and standing to the United States, a declining global power.

All things considered, Xi gained little and Trump gave little away during the summit. Xi sought, but did not get Trump to publicly reaffirm the One-China policy, endorse China’s new model of great power relations, or give concessions in the areas of trade and commerce, North Korea (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system), Taiwan (arms sales), and maritime sovereignty (South China Sea). Xi did, however, lower heightened tensions, dampen the risk of a destabilizing trade war (for now), and secure an agreement for his proposed four dialogue mechanisms covering diplomacy and security, economics, law enforcement and cybersecurity, and social and people-to-people exchanges.

Still, Trump largely controlled the setting, atmospherics, and strategic narratives from start to finish due to what can essentially be boiled down to homecourt advantage. As the summit’s host, he arrived later and did not greet Xi when Xi first landed in Florida. The tone-setting slight, among other later maneuvers, incrementally diminished Xi’s stature as a world leader – a perception that Xi wanted to avoid at all costs. Hence, Xi calculatingly made a state visit to Finland, a stop-over en route to visit Trump in an initial attempt to sidestep such a suppliant visual. Then at the end of dinner on Thursday, Trump personally informed Xi that he had ordered missile strikes against Syria before announcing the action to the world moments later. Xi was left flat-footed and awkwardly expressed an appreciation for Trump for letting him know and providing the rationale, and indicated that he understood that such a response was necessary when people are killing children. Remarks had to be clarified later by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reiterating that China “opposes the use of force in international relations and maintains that disputes should be peacefully resolved through political and diplomatic means such as dialogue and consultation.” Xi’s perceived failure to stand up to Trump and defend his country’s interests on a global stage will likely have consequences back home. The charismatic Chinese leader rose to power by looking strong, but Trump, Xi’s political opponents will say, made Xi appear weak and consequently made China look weak.   

Another possible tell-tale sign that Trump got the upper hand was the subdued summit coverage by the Chinese media relative to their American counterparts. While U.S. media provided extensive coverage of arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world, Chinese media was surprisingly low-key. Normally when Xi travels overseas there is full press coverage as part of a larger public diplomacy campaign to dominate the strategic narratives. For a trip to the United States to meet his equivalent, greater coverage would certainly have been appropriate and warranted. Only after the conclusion of the summit did the Chinese media start to report more details of the meeting, albeit, with only basic information at first.

Yet another anecdotal indicator that Xi underperformed during the summit was the high level of interest among Chinese netizens on Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging platform, and Sina Weibo’s attempts to restrict online discussion on the topic by deactivating the comment function on some relevant posts and removing critical posts that attempted to link the U.S. missile strikes on Syria to the summit.

That said, the self-imposed media censorship may have been driven partly by Beijing’s hyper-concerns about Trump’s unpredictability and the high likelihood of an embarrassing atmosphere. Still, subsequent media reports, official public releases, and think tank commentaries in the weeks that followed appeared largely cautious and defensive, and in many cases, in full spin control. They expended an inordinate amount of attention on the intangible personal relationship between Xi and Trump, on the former’s proposed four dialogue mechanisms, and resumed their public diplomacy campaign to underscore the two countries’ economic interdependence, imperative of avoiding a destabilizing trade war, and the importance of preserving the China-U.S. strategic relations.     

Ramifications for U.S.-China Strategic Relationship  

The Trump-Xi Summit injected much-needed certainty and stability back into the strategic relationship. From Beijing’s perspective, Trump unhelpfully introduced unpredictability and friction to bilateral relations on trade deficits, the RMB exchange rate, North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, Taiwan, and the South China Sea (SCS). So, despite not yielding any concrete accomplishments beyond pledges of increased cooperation, new frameworks for dialogue, and a state visit to Beijing by Trump later in the year; the summit did indirectly bring some stability (albeit temporarily) into the strategic relationship in terms of dampening the risk of a disruptive trade war (for now), setting aside the contentious issue of Chinese currency manipulation (for now), tacitly reaffirming the One-China policy, and repeating the importance of adherence to international norms in the East and South China Seas and to previous statements on non-militarization.  

It’s been over two months since Trump took office, but leading up to the summit some pundits were still arguing that the U.S.-China relationship remained in transition. This is no longer the case. The summit signaled the reset of bilateral relations from a collaborative nature (Obama’s approach) to a more competitive one (Trump’s approach) as codified by the guiding principle of “America First.” Washington will now pursue foreign policies that unequivocally put U.S. national interests first, as evidenced by Trump’s inclination to change the status quo and possibly use Taipei as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations with Beijing (and possibly North Korea too), focus on the growing U.S.-China trade imbalance and Chinese currency manipulation that puts the U.S. economy at a competitive disadvantage, flexibility to re-prioritize the aforesaid economic interests below the more pressing North Korean nuclear and missile threat, and willingness to use military force to uphold international rule of law or when faced with threats abroad.          

What to Expect When Trump Visits China

The Trump-Xi Summit gave the United States “relative, tenuous, and transitory” strategic advantage over China in terms of initiative and narrative. Trump appears to have successfully co-opted Xi as a strategic partner in stabilizing the situation on the Korean Peninsula, in exchange for concessions in the areas of trade imbalance, currency manipulation, and Taiwan. If so, the partnership is strictly transactional. A North Korean buffer state will remain a core Chinese national interest, and Beijing will undoubtedly take steps in the near future to regain the initiative that it enjoyed for most of the past eight years. It will do so more cautiously and subtly this time around, perhaps at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing (14-15 May), Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore (2-4 June), and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and East Asia Summits in Vietnam and the Philippines respectively (November).   

Xi may be under intense political and personal pressure to do much better at the next state visit to Beijing by Trump, especially if the meeting precedes the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in late 2017. There is widespread speculation that he is trying to build political momentum to ensure that more members of his faction are promoted to the Central Committee and the Politburo, a necessary interim step if he wants to change CPC’s rules to serve an unprecedented third term as president (and/or retain his other two titles of general secretary of the CPC and chairman of the Central Military Commission) and maintain power and influence beyond 2022.

If so, Washington can expect intense shaping and robust deal-making from Beijing in the coming months. Xi will do his utmost to reset the conditions in China’s favor to not only regain the strategic advantage (initiative) prior to the second summit but also to look personally strong and in control during the summit for his domestic audiences (Chinese people and fellow CPC members). He will certainly leverage his homecourt advantage to control the setting, atmosphere, and narratives much like Trump did. Hence, could this back-and-forth jockeying for relative strategic advantage be the start of a new Cold War between the United States and China? Or can Trump and Xi reach a strategic accommodation that manages strategic competition and avoids the Thucydides Trap?    

U.S. Strategic Opportunities and Ways Washington Can Leverage  

Embrace Strategic Competition. When two powers, one status quo and one rising, with competing regional strategies extend into one’s another security and economic spheres, the geopolitical landscape is ripe for friction. This competition is not to be feared but to be expected and embraced. If Beijing insists and persists on a “new type of great power relationship” with Washington, then give China what it wants – but on U.S. terms. Define, codify, and enforce the conditions of any negotiated bilateral relations such as no militarization of the SCS and balanced trade, and most importantly, be willing to redefine the relationship when necessary. Play the Chinese game of “go” and not the Western game of “chess.”

Leverage the Strategic Advantage. Both Washington and Beijing share the same strategic goals for the Korean Peninsula – strategic stability and denuclearization. Continue co-opting Beijing to exert pressure on Pyongyang to renounce its nuclear ambitions and return to the negotiating table. To be successful, Trump must be willing to give and take with Xi across the spectrum of strategic interests, while making sure Xi clearly understand the risks and implications of not playing an active role in moderating Kim Jong-un and stabilizing the Peninsula. This will allow the two presidents to build trust, which could, in turn, open opportunities in other areas of disagreement (trade, currency manipulation, Taiwan, SCS, etc.).          

Protect the Global Commons. In pursuing the aforesaid strategic opportunities, one area where Washington must be careful not to concede too much is in the contested and interlinked global commons of maritime, space, and cyberspace. Giving unwarranted ground in these strategic domains will undermine American preeminence and encourage China to press for additional concessions in return for vague and passing promises of restraint, while quietly and steadily expanding and strengthening its position in the global commons. Play the long game.       

Maintain the Strategic High Ground. Do not let Xi unilaterally set the conditions and impose his will when he meets Trump again in Beijing later in the year. Xi will have the homecourt advantage and will be pressured to put on a strong showing, so negotiate for everything to level the playing field and mitigate expected protocol payback from Xi for Mar-a-Lago. Or else, the United States will prematurely return the strategic initiative to China. Remain firm. China respects strength.


From Beijing’s perspective, the Xi-Trump Summit at Mar-a-Lago achieved a great deal. It not only “charted a course and provided a roadmap for China-U.S. relations, but also established a new cooperation mechanism that will enhance and protect the all-important strategic bilateral relationship.” So how much of this narrative is congruent with Washington’s views of the summit? And more importantly, if the summit was as significant as Beijing claimed, then what and how much did it impact the U.S.-China relations? It may be too soon to fully answer this critical question. The latter half of the play has yet to unfold. Until then, it behooves Washington not to give too much ground in one area in exchange for gains in another without careful thought and consideration of any enduring implications. Otherwise, the United States risks inadvertently ceding its strategic position in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, undermining its roles and responsibilities as the global leader, and paving the way for China to become a regional hegemon.  

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs. The views expressed therein are their own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: President Donald Trump talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with their wives, first lady Melania Trump and Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan as they pose for photographers before dinner at Mar-a-Lago, Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Palm Beach, Fla. (Alex Brandon / AP)

Trump-Xi Summit, Looking Back One Month Later

By Tuan N. Pham

As the dust settles and more disclosures are made, what can be said now of the Trump-Xi Summit a month later? 

Last month, I wrote an article titled “After the Summit: Where Do U.S.-China Relations Go From Here?” where I posited that China appeared to have a lot to be gratified about in 2016 in terms of advancing its rising regional and international role. The 6-7 April Trump-Xi Summit was the latest strategic signaling to the world that Beijing has abandoned its longstanding state policy of “hide capabilities and bide time” and will now assume its rightful place on the world stage as a destined global power. I also suggested that the heavily choreographed summit seemed more about atmospherics than substance as evidenced by President Xi’s exacting protocol demands prior to the summit, President Trump’s decision to launch missile strikes against Syria during the summit, and the summit itself not yielding any concrete accomplishments beyond pledges of increased cooperation, new frameworks for dialogue, and a state visit to Beijing by Trump later in the year. One month later, as the dust settles and more disclosures are made, what can be said now of the summit?

Part 1 of this two-part series asks what the perceived and actual outcomes are from a Chinese, American, and international perspective. Part 2 will then ask which leader came out relatively stronger, what the ramifications for U.S.-China strategic relations are, what to expect when Trump visits China later in the year, and finally where the strategic opportunities are for the U.S. and how Washington can leverage them.

The Chinese Perspective

Looking back at China’s official public releases, think tank commentaries, and authoritative media reports of the summit, an overarching strategic communications theme was apparent across the tightly controlled and synchronized Chinese public information domain – “the summit charted a course and provided a roadmap for the China-U.S. relations, and established a new cooperation mechanism that will enhance and protect the all-important strategic bilateral relationship.” Supporting talking points shared (and probably coordinated) amongst the various Chinese interlocutors encompassed: (1) complementarity between the economies of China and the United States far exceeds any competition between them, (2) a thousand reasons for two countries to be good partners and not a single reason to damage the China-U.S. relations, (3) that China is firmly committed to the path of peaceful development, does not wish to play a zero-sum game, is not seeking hegemony, and is willing to work with the United States to maintain world peace, stability, and prosperity, and (4) that the U.S. relationship with China will depend on the hope for a “new pattern of relations between great powers” based on the principle of “no confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” Common catchphrases used by Chinese government officials, pundits, and news media to characterize the summit included “mutual understanding, mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual shaping.”

Given the circumstances, it seems that the Chinese public diplomacy apparatus – which Beijing uses to signal its policy priorities – struggled to make the case that the summit resulted in any substantive or tangible outcomes. Instead it expended an inordinate amount of attention on the intangible personal relationship between Xi and Trump and on the former’s proposed four dialogue mechanisms covering diplomacy and security, economics, law enforcement and cybersecurity, and social and people-to-people exchanges. This is not too surprising considering that Chinese think tank punditry and authoritative media reporting prior to the summit were, by and large, focused on building up Xi, jockeying for summit positions, expressing desired outcomes, and in some cases, grandstanding and hedging.            

What may be more telling is the coverage by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, think tanks, and authoritative media of areas of bilateral tensions – North Korea, Taiwan, South China Sea (SCS), and trade and commerce – during and after the summit. To date, they have been largely limited, vague, positive, and most importantly, provided no indication that Beijing is considering major changes in its policies in the aftermath of the summit.

The one exception may be North Korea. There have been sporadic dialogues in the Chinese media – most notably in the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper run by the state-run People’s Daily, that suggest a growing policy debate within China questioning Beijing’s longstanding support to North Korea, warn of potential sanctions, and caution Pyongyang if it “carries out a sixth nuclear test as expected, it is more likely than ever that the situation will cross the point of no return…all stakeholders will bear the consequences, with Pyongyang sure to suffer the greatest losses.” These media commentaries, while sometimes used to test reactions to potential foreign policies, do not necessarily represent the views of the state. But the warnings appear consistent with Beijing’s recent actions to include implementation of previous United Nations Security Council sanctions and the Xi-Trump phone call on 24 April to discuss possible solutions to the North Korean nuclear issue and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

However, while encouraging, these latest Chinese cooperative moves may be motivated more by Xi’s desire to project goodwill with Trump than to help resolve the North Korean problem. Beijing has shown time and time again that its strategic interests in maintaining the status quo on the Korean Peninsula and ensuring a stable North Korea along its border override its desire to cooperate with Washington to denuclearize the peninsula. The coming months will reveal Beijing’s true intent, and more importantly, its sincerity and resolve this time around. Placating words are meaningless without persistent and consistent actions. Washington should trust but verify.   

The American Perspective 

The White House praised the summit as a positive and productive opportunity for both presidents and their wives to get to know one another, and for their respective staffs to build rapport for the work ahead in reviewing the state of strategic bilateral relations and generating results-focused outcomes that would benefit both countries. Trump and Xi agreed to work in concert to expand areas of cooperation while managing differences based on mutual respect and to elevate existing bilateral talks to reflect the importance of making progress on strategic issues of mutual concern. 

Overall, the meeting details were rather sparse for policy flexibility and probably indicative of the U.S. limited objectives for the summit considering the timing and duration of the meeting: (1) get through the state visit without any enduring policy encumbrances; (2) size up Chinese counterparts for future negotiations (trade, commerce, North Korea, Taiwan, SCS, etc.); and (3) set favorable conditions for the forthcoming and more substantive cabinet-level dialogues and state visit to China. Generally speaking, a major summit within the first 100 days of taking office may be too soon, particularly with the principal nation-state competitor, understaffed national security team, and an unsettled China policy.

Despite the positive and upbeat portrayals of the summit by Beijing and Washington, there was a wide divergence on whether the state visit was a success or not amongst U.S. think tank and media analysts. Some read the lack of a joint press conference or joint press statement as a failure; while others judged the summit as successful simply because it provided an opportunity for Trump and Xi to meet, lower heightened tensions, and set the conditions for future dialogues and negotiations. However, most agreed that the U.S. missile strikes on Syria overshadowed the summit and the summit itself produced few substantive or tangible results. That being said, many saw enough pleasantry between the two sides for restrained optimism in the coming year.

The International Perspective

Most foreign media outlets were cautiously hopeful prior to the summit. Many welcomed the meeting as an occasion to reduce the rising tensions between Beijing and Washington, lower the risk of a disruptive trade war with global ramifications, and explore a new constructive and stabilizing relationship between the two economic and military juggernauts. After the summit, the same foreign media outlets largely acknowledged that there were few substantive or tangible outcomes and the U.S. missile strikes against Syria detracted from the meeting. Some even intimated that the latter may have been a subtle signal to China that the United States is ready to act militarily and unilaterally when faced with threats abroad to include North Korea. Nevertheless, the cordial tone and lack of controversy were generally considered positive steps towards ameliorating tensions in U.S.-China relations during the first eventful months of the Trump Administration.  

U.S. regional allies and partners were rather anxious that Washington would make some sort of unilateral accommodation to Beijing without consultation and at their expense. In Tokyo, there had been apprehensions that the Trump Administration would attempt to use “the scent of a huge deal with China” as leverage to extract concessions from Japan, ease plans to step up pressure on Pyongyang, and give ground in the East China Sea (ECS) and SCS. In Seoul, there were fears that Washington would offer uncoordinated peninsular concessions to Beijing in exchange for pressuring Pyongyang. In Taipei, there were concerns that Trump would continue to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip in its trade negotiations with Beijing and possibly for North Korea, too. In Canberra, there were worries of being left behind on potential economic agreements.

All appear relieved with the summit’s lackluster outcomes. Trump’s telephone calls with Japanese Prime Minister Abe before and after the meeting seemed to allay the Japanese concerns. The Korean response was generally mixed with the Korean Foreign Ministry hailing the summit as successful and meaningful, while the Korean media calling out the meeting for its lack of any agreement on the North Korean nuclear and missile issue. The Taiwanese were likely reassured that the Chinese proposal for a Fourth Communique did not come up, in which Trump would again accede to Xi’s wishes by agreeing that there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of it, instead of the U.S. longstanding policy that it acknowledges the Chinese viewpoint but does not accept the viewpoint. The Australians were simply content that no economic agreements were made that upset their robust bilateral trade relations with China. As for the rest of the region, the media provided limited coverage – as is typical for events outside the region – with post-summit commentary predominantly observed in Singapore. As expected, Singapore took a neutral and measured position of the summit – “does not appear to have gone badly…and achieved little more than just sketching out the challenges which lie ahead on North Korea, SCS, and trade and commerce.”


This concludes the short discourse on the perceived and actual outcomes from a Chinese, American, and international Regional perspective on the Trump-Xi summit and sets the conditions for further discussion in part 2 on the assessment of which leader came out relatively stronger, ramifications for the U.S.-China strategic relations, expectations of Trump’s visit to China later in the year, and U.S. strategic opportunities and how Washington can leverage them.     

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs. The views expressed therein are their own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Thursday and Friday have put bilateral ties back on track. (AFP)