Analysis & Opinions - CNN.com

Trump Demonstrated the Art of the Show With Xi

| Apr. 14, 2017

The stakes were high at the initial meeting between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week: No two individuals will have a greater impact on the global order in the years ahead and, beyond that, as far as any eye can see.

Personal chemistry is often a critical factor in foreign relations, and while no one expected major breakthroughs on the substantive issues, the meeting allowed the leaders to get to know each other.
 
So, how did Trump do? And what does it mean for this most vital of international relationships?
Trump's performance reflected his mastery of the art of the show. That the producer and star of a popular, long-running reality TV series should have formidable skills in this domain should not be surprising. But after so many missteps on so many other fronts, it was heartening to see them demonstrated.
 
Visible, dignified, ritualistic displays are of critical importance to the Chinese. On that score, therefore, Trump gave Xi what he wanted most from this first meeting: vivid images of respect for China as a great nation and for him as a great leader.
 
The moment at which the Trump show likely captured Xi came when Trump's 5-year-old granddaughter, Arabella, performed for Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan, a famous Chinese folk singer.
 
Arabella sang "Jasmine Flower," a song Peng is famous for performing, and followed up by reciting a poem by Li Bai, one of China's most acclaimed poets and a personal favorite of Xi's. Moreover, she did this all in Mandarin. The video went viral and has been viewed tens of millions of times on Chinese social media.
 
As Henry Kissinger has noted, Chinese emperors historically treated foreigners "humanely and compassionately in proportion to their attainment of Chinese culture and their observance of rituals connoting submission to China." On that test, no one trumped Trump.
 
The Trump team understood that Xi's overriding objective for 2017 is to consolidate his personal power at home. Xi has been meticulously setting the stage for the 19th Party Congress this fall, where he will be "elected" for a second five-year term and where he is planning to put in place his choice of new members of China's highest political body -- the Politburo Standing Committee -- that will allow him to extend his rule thereafter.
 
For this to happen as planned, the one thing he needs in China's most important international relationship is stability. Approaching his first meeting with a President notorious for spontaneous tweets, we can imagine his anxiety.
 
But while giving Xi what he needed, Trump also set the agenda for the rest of the year to focus on what he wants: specifically, demonstrable movement in reducing China's persistent bilateral trade deficit in ways that will allow Trump to claim that he has added good American jobs, and stopping North Korea's nuclear advance.
 
A working group led by Secretaries Wilbur Ross and Steven Mnuchin and their Chinese counterparts has 100 days to report on a specific program of actions to address the economic front. The Chinese have already signaled that they are prepared to make significant concessions, including ending the ban on beef imports that they imposed in 2003, buying more agricultural products and making investments in American infrastructure projects.
 
While it is too soon to be confident how Xi read Trump's position on North Korea, my bet is that he is at least uncertain about whether Trump will attack North Korea.
 
On the road to the summit, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained forcefully that the era of "strategic patience" has ended. Prior to the summit, Trump said plainly: "China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won't. If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don't, it won't be good for anyone." (After the summit, a Trump tweet reminded all that if China failed to act, the United States would act unilaterally.)
 
Trump's deftness in excusing himself after the opening dinner with Xi at Mar-a-Lago to announce US cruise missile strikes on Syria showed that he can walk and chew gum at the same time. It also underlined his threat to use America's military might when adversaries cross its red lines.
So Trump's "warm hospitality" (as Xi put it) constitutes a good start. Two alpha males from the two alpha countries took each other's measure, demonstrated that they can do business with each other -- and nothing bad happened. But over the year ahead, and indeed the next four years, they will face a much more severe array of challenges.
 
Underneath current differences lie much deeper structural stresses caused by a rising China that threatens to displace a ruling America. Through Chinese eyes, China's natural growth is restoring its rightful position of predominance in Asia -- a position it occupied for millennia before the West showed up, interfered and imposed what Chinese call a "century of humiliation."

 

From an American perspective, the economic and security order the United States constructed after World War II -- and has managed since -- has provided for the region, and especially China, the longest periods of peace and the greatest increase of prosperity it has ever known.

Thucydides's Trap reminds us that most cases of rivalry between a rising and ruling power end violently. Cases in which leaders navigated these treacherous shoals successfully required much more imagination and more radical changes in attitudes and actions by both leaders and their publics than either Trump or Xi can now imagine.
 
The hard work lies ahead.
 
For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Trump Demonstrated the Art of the Show With Xi.” CNN.com, April 14, 2017.