China: Low Expectations for Summit

Published on October 12, 2018

With US stock markets suddenly swooning – uncomfortably close to the midterm elections – the few remaining doves in Washington leaked out yesterday preparations for a potential summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping at the sideline of the G20 Heads of State meeting in Buenos Aires that opens on November 30.

*** Chinese officials believe the summit will neither end a trade war, nor significantly improve China-US relations. ***

*** While both sides are open to discussions – it is after all better to talk than not – the Chinese coolness to the new US overtures has been exacerbated enormously by the hostility Beijing saw in the recent speech by Vice President Mike Pence on Sino-US relations. Chinese officials have described it as “the most comprehensive anti-China speech by the highest-level US official since the establishment of diplomatic ties.” ***

*** Perhaps more to the point, and only reinforced by Pence’s fiery speech, Beijing is fully resigned to a drawn out, strategic conflict and rivalry with the United States that even if ameliorated through negotiations would result in no more than a temporary truce. And we would agree, as for his part, we continue to believe Trump will take the fight to China straight through to the 2020 elections. ***

In response to the Pence speech, China’s President Xi Jinping, according to Chinese sources, refused to meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And when Foreign Minister Wang Yi did meet with his counterpart on Monday, October 8, he publicly denounced the US, and demanded the US side stop their “unwarranted slanders and accusations.”

Pompeo did, nevertheless, convey the proposal for a Xi-Trump meeting during the G20 summit to Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat and a member of the Politburo of the CPC Central Committee. While acknowledging the request, Yang remained non-committal, and we are told did not engage in any in-depth discussions with Pompeo on the issue.

But Always Better to Talk

Despite the mutual suspicions, and low expectations, we do believe the summit will take place. Both sides have after all expressed a willingness to meet – under certain conditions.

After the last outreach by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to Beijing was aborted by President Trump’s announcement of tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese exports, China’s President Xi Jinping laid out two conditions that would need to be met for him to ever agree to a summit meeting with Trump.

The first was that China would no longer reach out for a meeting, and any outreach would have to come from Washington. The second was that Xi – or for that matter Vice-Premier Liu He – would never meet under the threat of actions potentially being imposed by the US while negotiations were taking place. Given what had just happened, one might think the latter – an interestingly narrow and specific precondition – rather understandable.

Trump, for his part, has of late mused often about his relationship with Xi, and the possibility that they would meet – when China was ready to deal. And with the democratic party lead in the polls narrowing after the victory in the nomination battle over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, at least for now, the President has every incentive to keep that positive mojo going through the next few weeks.


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