Ely Ratner is the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.
If President Trump wants to get tough on China, hosting President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago later this week is a big step in the wrong direction.
It’s easy to imagine how the Florida summit will unfold: rich with ceremony, heavily scripted and full of hollow declarations about the importance of a constructive U.S.-China relationship. With few, if any, interactions with the media, official cameras will capture a confident Xi casually strolling with Trump and later dining with his family, including daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner. The photos will splash across China’s state-run media as Xi heads home triumphant the next day.
No wonder the Chinese government is desperate for the meeting. Xi, facing a critical twice-a-decade Community Party conclave this fall, will secure the ultimate foreign policy stamp of approval for his deft handling of the United States. Xi will show up with a bag of political goodies for Trump, expected to include pledges of big, “tweetable” Chinese investments in the United States.
However, without fundamentally addressing the unfair trade and investment practices Trump railed against during the campaign, the president will have given away his single most valuable asset — the ability to hold back a leader-level summit at his vacation home until Beijing truly delivers on U.S. demands such as opening its economy and pressuring North Korea. Instead, Trump will be showering Xi with legitimacy and bolstering his influence at home and abroad. This, while China continues bullying U.S. allies, cracking down on dissidents and failing to reform its struggling economy at the expense of global growth.
It should be otherwise. The initial months of the Trump administration presented a critical opportunity to renew confidence in the region that the United States was willing to stand up to Beijing, in contrast to an Obama administration that too often turned the other cheek to China’s transgressions. The new executive orders on trade enforcement announced late last week were an encouraging sign, but on balance the Trump team’s inaction has been troubling: no freedom-of- navigation operations to challenge China’s illegal claims in the South China Sea, no sanctions to penalize Chinese companies that continue profiting from technology stolen from American firms, no new package of arms sales to Taiwan, and not signing a letter with 11 fellow democracies criticizing China for torturing human rights lawyers. You may not have expected Trump to take all of these actions, but doing none of them speaks volumes.
Instead, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised serious concerns among nervous U.S. partners throughout Asia by parroting Community Party slogans in Beijing that portend U.S. decline and U.S. accommodation to China. Tillerson reportedly made the decision himself to assuage his Chinese hosts, ignoring the diplomatic costs with the rest of the world for taking this kind of transactional and obsequious approach with Beijing.
Meanwhile, Trump has already damaged the United States’ standing in the world’s most prosperous region by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, leaving many in Asia wondering whether “America First” means that Washington is ready to hand over the keys of global leadership to Beijing. Now, consider how it will play when Trump confers on Xi the privilege of visiting Mar-a-Lago that was previously reserved for the closest U.S. ally, Japan.
The Chinese will nod their heads and say the right things in Florida, but they also know a Washington that’s distracted and in disarray will prove incapable of effectively pressuring Beijing. Trump can threaten the Chinese with sanctions if they don’t get tough on North Korea, but these will be speed bumps for Beijing without a comprehensive strategy that reasserts U.S. economic and diplomatic leadership in Asia. Similarly, unless the United States is sophisticated in how it manages its allies and participates in regional institutions, simply slapping tariffs on Chinese imports or demanding reciprocity on market access is likely to be ineffective or result in self-defeating confrontation.
Trump can and should get tough with Beijing, but there’s a useful maxim that to get China right, you have to get Asia right first. Instead, Trump continues ceding ground in the contest for regional influence. Giving Xi the VIP treatment in Florida will only further strengthen China’s president at the United States’ expense.