Today, U.S. President Trump arrived in Beijing for the China leg of his marathon 12-day tour in the Asia-Pacific region. He will be the first leader of a major world power to visit China since its recently concluded leadership reshuffle at the 19th Party Congress last month. The Chinese government has promised that his trip from November 8-10th will be a “state visit plus.”
A tale of two presidents

  • Xi empowered: The recently concluded 19th Party Congress was a resounding success for Xi, who emerged from the leadership reshuffle with his status firmly cemented as China’s most powerful leader in decades. Xi now appears to be at the pinnacle of power, although his administration will need to contend with serious challenges weighing down the Chinese economy in his second term, such as the country’s accumulating pile of debt and surplus productive capacity.
  • Trump weakened: In contrast, while the Chinese president appears to be at the pinnacle of power, his American counterpart’s political fortunes have sagged considerably since their first meeting in Florida last spring. Trump has faced declining approval ratings as his administration has made little progress on its legislative agenda, such as failing to push through promised changes on healthcare, and been embroiled in scandals such as investigations into links between his campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. However, the U.S economy has surged this year, with unemployment now at a 17-year low.

What China wants from the visit:

  • Maintain the status quo: The Chinese leadership is broadly comfortable with the current state of bilateral relations and will be looking to safeguard the status quo. Above all, the Xi administration is looking to prevent economic tensions from worsening and keep a trade war at bay while avoiding having to make any major concessions on trade issues.
  • Secure further acknowledgement of the “One China” policy: In addition, Beijing will likely be seeking Trump’s further acknowledgement of the “One China” policy as well as greater recognition from the U.S. president for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) after he sent an American delegation to the BRI’s first major international summit in May.
  • Showcase Xi’s effectiveness in managing Sino-U.S. relations: Beijing will also look to leverage Trump’s visit as an opportunity to showcase Xi’s adroitness in successfully managing China’s most consequential bilateral relationship and keeping it on an even keel.

What the U.S. wants:

  • Make progress towards rebalancing economic relations: In contrast, the Trump administration is looking for a significant shake-up in the bilateral relationship. On the economic front, Trump will be pushing for greater progress on achieving more balanced economic ties, in particular by narrowing America’s US$347 billion trade deficit with China. This would entail persuading Beijing to change what Washington argues are unfair trading practices and further open up its domestic markets.
  • Ramped up Chinese pressure on Pyongyang: The other big-ticket item on Trump’s agenda is North Korea. The U.S. president will be hoping to convince Beijing to impose greater economic pressure on its neighbor and help contain rising tensions on the peninsula.

And what we’ll probably see:

  • Joint statement: Xi and Trump will very likely issue a joint statement emphasizing how they will build more balanced economic relations and further extend the scope of bilateral cooperation.
  • Series of big business deals: With a trade delegation of about 30 American companies accompanying Trump, China and the U.S. can be expected to unveil a slate of major new business deals, and energy and agriculture are some of the industries that will likely see major announcements. In addition, the participation of the CEOs from Goldman Sachs and PartnerRe indicates that there could also be announcements related to greater liberalization of China’s financial sector. Furthermore, Chinese energy giant Sinopec is expected to announce a multibillion-dollar energy investment that will create thousands of jobs in Texas and the U.S. Virgin islands.
  • No major steps towards reorienting economic relations: In all likelihood, however, there will be few hard outcomes beyond the business deals, and little progress will be made towards reorienting the wider economic relationship in the direction that the U.S. would like to see. Trump will have a series of commercial announcements that he can hoist up to the American public as evidence of his success addressing trade imbalances, but these will amount to little more than window-dressing on the underlying issues that his administration and U.S. businesses have long complained of, such as limited market access for foreign companies in China and Beijing’s industrial policies shoring up its state-owned champions. Beijing will reemphasize its position that the trade deficit cannot be closed overnight and urge Washington to be patient.
  • Further pressure on North Korea after Trump’s visit: Beijing will likely unveil stronger measures aimed at reining in North Korea in the weeks or months following Trump’s visit, but this will be due more to its growing frustrations with provocations rather than pressure from Washington.
  • A PR win for Beijing: With Chinese officials having called Trump’s trip a “state visit-plus,” Beijing is certain to roll out the red carpet for Trump and show him a very hospitable welcome. Chinese state-run media can be expected to feature heavy coverage on the businesses deals signed and Trump’s favorable remarks with regard to China and its paramount leader.
  • The Twitter question: And for the Americans weary of Trump’s freewheeling style of communications on Twitter, they may enjoy a brief respite from the president’s buzz of near daily updates during his China visit…but this appears unlikely given the following statement from a senior Chinese official: “We take everything into account on receiving foreign heads of state so you should have no reservations about Mr. President’s ability to keep in touch with the outside.” It is Trump’s “state visit plus” after all.

Photo credit: Xinhua News Agency.