Trump, Xi take first step to address security concerns

Last week, all eyes in Asia were on the meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. A lot was riding on the two-day summit between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies, whose relationship has been rocky of late.

The world is looking for reassurances, and perhaps even some common ground on North Korea, which has become an irritant for both Beijing and Washington.

I was surprised to hear that the summit was going ahead so soon, given Trump’s frequent criticisms of China. He has accused the mainland of being a currency manipulator, and he won’t rule out the threat of punitive tariffs on Chinese imports under his pledge to “make America great again”.

Trump has also tweeted his unhappiness with Beijing over its perceived lack of assistance in reining in North Korea, starting with economic pressure, and its drive to cement control over the South China Sea.

Just a few days before the summit, Trump signed two executive orders, ostensibly aiming to narrow trade deficits with 16 countries (including Thailand) but mainly aimed at China. The first order gives the Commerce Department 90 days to report on the factors behind the deficits, while the second seeks to improve import duty collection. By ordering a report in 90 days, the administration has raised expectations with trade partners that Trump will move from sweeping claims about trade abuses to actually having some facts to back them up.

China accounted for the lion’s share – US$347 billion (K474.27 billion) – of last year’s $502-billion trade deficit. About 21percent of China’s exports go to the US while 10pc of US shipments go to the mainland.

The visit by Xi followed a five-day tour of East Asia last month by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that ended in Beijing. The Trump administration needs to strengthen economic relations with Asian economies after its decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) damaged US credibility and possibly hampered its ability to engage in regional diplomacy.

For Charl Kengchon, managing director of Kasikorn Research Center, Xi’s visit to the US was a “smart move” although no significant outcome was expected from the talks. China has the capability to further expand its influence across Asia and beyond without the need for collaboration with the US, but Xi chose to take a friendly approach to his US counterpart, Charl said.

Trump, meanwhile, is preoccupied with domestic issues including immigration, but he requires Beijing’s engagement in a foreign policy agenda that the US cannot unilaterally manage, Charl adds.

For Beijing, the summit could help soften possible actions against Chinese-made goods in the future by requesting discussions before any tough measures are imposed. During an earlier interview with the Financial Times, Trump, who had expected “a very difficult” meeting with the Chinese leader, also hinted that tariffs might be a subject for a later meeting.

On security issues, experts foresee more confrontation as China’s military is seen to be challenging over 70 years of US dominance. While disputes over China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea continue to simmer, the first two months of Trump’s tenure have been preoccupied with North Korea. A day before the summit, Pyongyang fired a ballistic missile into the waters off its east coast in a reminder of the simmering tensions on the Korean peninsula.

“Xi probably can’t accommodate Trump on sovereignty and security issues, but he has a lot of leeway on economics,” said Robert Sutter, a China expert at George Washington University in Washington DC, as quoted by AP.

Meanwhile, Xi could seek Trump’s reaffirmation in person of his earlier commitment to Washington’s long-standing policy of recognising Beijing as the capital of “One China”, after the US president suggested Taiwan policy might change.

No matter what outcome (if any) the summit produced, it was a good sign that the two powerful leaders have begun to talk to each other, and one hopes it could lead to concrete cooperation later on.

Last week, a deadly suicide bombing in the subway in St Petersburg – and the North Korean missile launch – reminded us again that the world is a troubled place, and it would really help if top leaders would lower their guards to work hand-in-hand to address the growing threats to global security.

Bangkok Post


Nareerat Wiriyapong is the acting Asia Focus editor of the Bangkok Post