Commentary: The campaign pledge that could sink Trump’s China summit

This week’s meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping probably won’t bring a major breakthrough in U.S.-China relations, which have been strained in recent years by Chinese military aggression, cyber crime and rising trade tensions, among other issues.

A group who identified themselves as China-U.S. Enterprise wait to view the motorcade of Chinese President Xi Jinping before his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S. April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

China’s propaganda machine paints the United States as China’s chief adversary and portrays Xi as a strong leader and Trump in a negative light, which will prevent Xi from giving much ground when they meet.

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But if Trump is to make any headway with his Chinese counterpart, he should push an agenda in their private meetings that benefits the United States and makes the Asia Pacific region less tense. And strategic issues must come before trade.

In public, Trump should be gracious and presidential. How the people of China view his treatment of Xi is important. But behind closed doors, he must be unequivocal. He has to tell Xi that before Washington can move constructively on trade issues, Beijing must dismantle its military installations in the South China Sea and either abandon the artificial islands it built or share them with its neighbors, for non-military use.

Beijing must also help remove Kim Jong Un from power in North Korea and support a United Nations effort to send inspectors to verify the dismantling of its nuclear weapons program. It must also: stop the belligerent rhetoric and economic extortion against Taiwan and South Korea; honor its treaty with Britain regarding the one-country, two-systems agreed for Hong Kong after its return to China in 1997; shut down the export of illegal Chinese drugs; and stop hacking American companies.

The negotiator in Trump likely knows he should hold off making decisions on trade issues until he advances this strategic agenda. Although his campaign rhetoric about China focused on trade, the issues involving military buildup and North Korea, in particular, are more important. “Fixing” trade in a constructive way without addressing the rest of his agenda will hurt the United States’ negotiating position. There’s little reason for Beijing to give ground on strategic issues if Trump takes the economic card off the table.

When the press asks what the two leaders discussed, Trump should say that they talked about a range of important issues, the resolution of which will decide the two countries’ relationship. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis should attend all meetings with Xi. Both understand the ties between trade and strategic issues and would bring gravitas to the meeting. Beijing no doubt takes them and their views about the region seriously.

Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner should not be in these meetings, nor should he be advising Trump on any China issue. Around the time of Trump’s nomination, Kushner began negotiating with Wu Xiaohui, the politically connected chief executive officer of Anbang Insurance, for what could be characterized as a bailout of a high-profile Kushner family property – an arrangement that shows a lack of judgment and conflict of interest inconsistent with Trump’s campaign mantra to “clean the swamp.” It doesn’t matter that the Anbang deal appears to have fallen apart. What matters is that Kushner even took Wu’s call.

Lastly, Trump must tell Xi to wind down the anti-American propaganda distributed by China’s state-run media. Beijing can’t claim credit for China’s massive increase in living standards without acknowledging the United States’ impact on the Chinese economy. The United States is China’s largest export market and one of its largest sources of foreign investment. No business could treat its customers like Beijing treats the United States and count on continued support. Trump can give Xi some “face” on this by announcing that he’s going to stop his China bashing – and hopes Beijing will follow suit.

Whether the summit produces a breakthrough, and how the U.S.-China relationship proceeds, is largely up to Xi. But if he doesn’t move Beijing in a way that satisfies Trump, the U.S. president could use his office and bully pulpit to shrink China’s exports to the United States and U.S. investment into China. Imposing tariffs on Chinese imports would do the first, while continued criticism of American companies sending jobs to China would do the second. And while rethinking trade with China would likely mean a long, difficult period of adjustment for the American economy, continuing to shovel hundreds of billions of dollars annually in China’s direction while Beijing increasingly moves against U.S. strategic interests would ultimately be more painful.

Since the United States and China resumed relations in the 1970s, billions of people around Asia have largely enjoyed peace and prosperity. The relationship between Trump and Xi may be the most important one of their presidencies. Now is their chance to get it right.

About the Author

Robert Boxwell is director of Opera Advisors, a management consulting firm based in Kuala Lumpur.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.