China Power

How Trump and Xi Will Shape US-China Relations

A look at what the two leaders have in common — and where they differ.

By Katie Howe for
How Trump and Xi Will Shape US-China Relations
Credit: Official White House photo

While the early 21st century has witnessed significant change in international relations, perhaps the most fascinating relationship to watch in coming years will be that between the United States and China. It depends upon the distinct personal character of each nation’s president – one who has successfully altered his country’s constitution to ensure his rule beyond two consecutive terms, the other who has confidently stated that when it comes to his country’s foreign relations, “I’m the only one that matters.”

Any calculation of the course of U.S.-China relations over the next few years must factor in the nature of Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, both as individuals and as potential allies or rivals. Each leader considers himself a maverick within his own system, guiding their respective nations through a time of historical significance. One is new to politics and diplomacy yet oversees the globe’s established power nation. The other is a savvy political operator (both nationally and internationally) yet oversees a rising power nation. How these men interact is crucial, especially considering the shared personal characteristics that will shape their nation’s objectives and resolve.

First, both have a strong need to distinguish themselves from their predecessors and choose their own path. While previous President Barack Obama continued George W. Bush’s regional strategy and ongoing consultative approach with the State Department, Trump prefers to go his own way and seek his own counsel. In fact, he takes obvious pride in doing things as differently as possible to previous presidents. Meanwhile, in sharp contrast to two decades of reliable Communist Party leadership – particularly Hu Jintao’s understated, old-school approach – Xi’s leadership has been marked by a sense of confidence and ease, which has allowed him to glide quite smoothly into the role of international statesman.

This shared aspect is likely to provoke respect in both leaders, as each individual acknowledges this motivational drive in themselves and the impact it can have on establishing a new chapter of power politics in Asia. Such sentiment harks back to Trump’s comments at a 2018 Pennsylvania political rally, on China’s sanctions against North Korea: “China has done more for us than they have ever done for any other [U.S.] president and I respect that.” Last week, despite the current tensions created by bilateral trade negotiations, Trump found the time to publicly acknowledge “a beautiful letter” he received from Xi.

Second, Trump and Xi share a determination for making their own mark by changing the nature of the institutions they lead. In only six years, Xi Jinping’s leadership has been punctuated by anti-corruption campaigns, which have successfully taken out his rivals, and (most recently) a legal update that may see him leading the country and its military for the indeterminate future. Trump’s mere 27 months in the White House have revealed his penchant for being unpredictable, unplanned, and (some would say) uninformed. He quickly voiced his lack of interest in existing foreign policy protocols, such as daily intelligence updates and the use of briefing books. He’s also made it clear that in terms of political consultation, he enjoys conflict and debate rather than consensus.

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This shared appreciation for disruption has the potential to become challenging, particularly Trump’s “America First” approach to trade and tariffs, but should remain a workable aspect of the relationship. The most recent evidence came during Chinese Vice Premier (and chief trade negotiator) Liu He’s visit to Washington and Trump’s comments at a White House press event reinforcing his relationship with Xi and their intention to speak directly about trade negotiations.

Perhaps the greatest challenge emanating from Trump’s own way of doing things, from a foreign relations perspective, is his inability to use the expert counsel of the State Department. Long delays in appointing ambassadors throughout the Asia Pacific (such as South Korea and Australia) have placed unnecessary pressure on mid-level staff and conveyed a lack of interest in the region. Trump’s inability to appoint quality advisers that appreciate the context of regional politics, history, and culture (particularly between countries such as South Korea and Japan) will not be lost on Xi, who is savvy enough to exploit this weakness for all it’s worth.

Third, both leaders feel the weight of historical national legacy and a nostalgia for a China or America of another time. For Xi, it is an era in which China’s last two imperial dynasties shaped the region’s trade and diplomacy via a powerful tributary system and far-flung imperial navy. Trump is haunted by more recent memories of the United States’ rosy past. When asked by the New York Times’ David Sanger when America’s defense footprint and trade were last “great,” his reply was “the late ‘40s and ‘50s [when] we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war.”

This characteristic will present the greatest challenge for both leaders, as they chase the spectres of the glory days in an era of globalized trade, inter-regional trade networks, and complex multipolar approaches to foreign policy. In a world where multilateral trading blocs such as NAFTA, the European Union, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership dominate world trade, the time has passed for behemoth nations that can manipulate international trade at no cost to themselves.

These three shared traits will determine not only how the United States and China interact in coming years but also how power politics will be conducted in a region that is currently home to 60 percent of the world’s population and by 2050 is expected to provide half the globe’s GDP.

Will their interactions throughout Asia be symmetrical or asymmetrical? Where will they meet and where will they diverge? The answers lie in three key areas of regional tension.

North Korea

While developments on the Korean Peninsula have provided an opportunity for both leaders to collaborate, this issue raises many challenges for an inexperienced Trump administration. The U.S. president believes his unpredictability (some would call it a lack of policy) gives him an upper hand in negotiations as there is no playbook for his opponents to refer to.

However, over time this style – along with his disinterest in analytically observing his opponents – will be anticipated. Some analysts, such as Lisa Collins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, say adversaries such as North Korea may already be doing this by preparing to negotiate directly with the world’s most influential nation. Has Trump unwittingly granted North Korea’s long-held wish to hold direct talks with the United States and played his most valuable bargaining chip too early? Considering the fallout of the March follow up meeting in Hanoi and North Korea’s recent launch of two short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, some would say yes.

Regional Collaboration 

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Another symmetrical challenge for the United States will be engaging with the new economies of the region. Trump prefers bilateral negotiations where tariffs can be negotiated country by country; however, Asia is increasingly becoming a region defined by local alliances and networks. While both the United States and China engage with ASEAN, it is China that has successfully established the region’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In fact, this is a curious aspect of the relationship where Trump and Xi’s shared determination to make their own mark, plus reinstate their nation’s legacy, may result in an enormous change in the status quo. Xi’s vision of China entails regional leadership while Trump’s vision of America is to pull back from international commitments. A number of recent developments have roundly excluded the United States – most notably China’s cooperative regional security architecture known as the “Asian Security Concept,” the TPP-11 trade pact (forged after Trump withdrew from the original deal) and Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) development strategy.

Japan’s Status

A routinely overlooked aspect of regional tension is the changing role of Japan in power politics, particularly as it struggles with the national and regional shifts related to its relationship with the United States. Trump’s national vision of an America invested in the protection of domestic manufacturing, plus his regional vision of withdrawing from trade alliances such as the TPP, present enormous challenges.

The conundrum of Japan’s national identity and defense planning continues to raise alarms both within and without the country. In November 2017, more than 40,000 people attended national rallies to protest Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plans to revise Article 9 of the constitution, known as the “pacifist article” for its renunciation of war. In May, national and international media reported on the increasingly vocal opposition of some Japanese citizens to the imperial family, particularly following the recent succession ceremony in Tokyo.

While America’s current relationship (and military presence) with Japan is positioned in foreign relations as a key component of regional security, it began as an occupying force. That fact is certainly not lost on Japan’s neighbors, 31 of which were either bombed or occupied by the Japanese during World War II. It can be difficult for nations obsessed with Eurocentric history (commemorated annually with Oscar film nominations) to appreciate Asia’s experience of WWII under the Japanese. The total civilian loss of life, in China alone, is at least that experienced by the former Soviet Union. Some historians estimate it at double this figure.

These legacies of recent history, along with Trump’s inability to appreciate their impact on current regional geopolitics and China’s response to changes in regional security, present one of the greatest areas of divergence. They may also be the key to Xi’s greatest opportunity for genuine regional collaboration and provide the most fascinating interaction between two men whose personal characteristics will define bilateral relations for decades to come.

Katie Howe is a strategic consultant based in Canberra, Australia. Her 20-year expertise includes public affairs, government relations, crisis communications, corporate communications and risk management support.