Peter Brookes: Trump, Xi have a lot to discuss

Peter Brookes

Meetings between President Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago are potentially pretty darn consequential for both powers – not to mention the rest of the world.

While the short time since Xi’s visit was announced likely indicates that not a lot of official agreements – if any – will be inked during the Florida trip, the two leaders will certainly be sizing each other up since they’ve not met before.

Despite an intense news focus on other foreign policy issues, Sino-American ties are likely to be the most important in this century simply due to Beijing’s remarkable rise in the international system.

Today, China is a country of superlatives or near-superlatives. It’s the world’s most populous nation with the second-largest economy, second-biggest defense budget and is one of the most active nations diplomatically.

China is a player – plain and simple.

Ties between Beijing and Washington, D.C., aren’t really happy, either, going back to the last administration. If the two leaders decide to go beyond just getting acquainted and roll up their shirtsleeves, the following issues will be front and center.

Trade: Considering the president’s harsh campaign rhetoric on China and laser-like focus on boosting the U.S. economy, business with Beijing will be near the top of Trump’s to-do list.

The big U.S. trade deficit with China, which was about $350 billion last year, and much better access for U.S. companies to the Chinese marketplace will be huge issues for Washington.

To ease the deficit, Xi will counter Trump with the need for ending barriers to Chinese investment here and American high-tech exports there, currently restricted due to U.S. national security concerns.

North Korea: Trump will push for Beijing to pressure Pyongyang on its nuclear and ballistic missile provocations, which – with each test – increasingly threaten the homeland and our Asian allies and friends.

North Korea launched another missile on Wednesday.

Beijing will say that it’s concerned, too, but it will also self-servingly assert that its clout is limited – despite being Pyongyang’s biggest benefactor. Its view: In order to reduce tensions, Washington must engage North Korea directly.

South China Sea: Xi probably hopes Trump doesn’t make a ruckus about China’s dubious claims of sovereignty over a million square miles of Pacific Ocean and its artificial-island building campaign.

Beijing’s well-rehearsed talking points will insist that the South China Sea is historically – and indisputably – China’s, despite the recent ruling by the international Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that there’s no basis for such an assertion.

Trump must remind Xi that Washington views Beijing’s efforts to control the South China Sea as a serious concern for freedom of the seas and American interests, including the flow of $1.5 trillion annually in U.S. seaborne commerce.

These three issues just scratch the surface of Sino-American relations: There are ties with Taiwan, Hong Kong’s transition, human rights issues, Beijing’s military build-up, and China’s cyber spying, among others.

Equally challenging for this meeting is that China now sees itself as a peer of the United States – not as a lesser power. Xi will make every effort to get Trump to see it that way – meaning it should be one very interesting get-together.

This article first appeared in the Boston Herald.  Dr. Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a Fort Valley resident. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter. Email: BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.

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