All eyes on the Trump-Xi summit

NS Vageesh | Updated on March 09, 2018

The US looks upon China as its main economic adversary. Given this backdrop, there is an air of breathless anticipation

With a surfeit of meetings between top leaders of various countries under the auspices of various forums over the past few years, summit diplomacy has acquired the reputation of being a rather meaningless exercise. Bromides about civilisational links, culture, peace, brotherhood, coexistence and goodwill are routinely exchanged even among leaders of adversarial powers.

Everything is pre-scripted by officials on both sides — almost to the last comma and full stop — so that there is perhaps little hope for any spontaneous or real exchange on matters of substance between two leaders. The official communiques may often be the stuff that may want to make you snigger and roll on the floor with laughter for its complete disconnect with current realities, but one is informed these protocols are essential rituals for the occasion and apparently help smoothen tensions and allow both sides to live and fight another day.

The upcoming summit meet between US President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping holds the promise of a refreshing and radical departure from the usual cloying and fawning that happens when leaders of superpowers meet.

A sense of suspense

One hopes they will have a straightforward and honest conversation and thrash out differences boldly. The build-up to the meeting has of course been expectedly raucous. Relations between the two powers, always a bit testy, have remained tense as Trump began to bait China right through his election campaign. That by itself was nothing new as other candidates have taken the same route in the past — rant against China on the campaign trail and turn obsequious and deferential around it once they take office. For a short while it seemed as though the script was taking a predictable turn when US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, went to Beijing a few weeks ago and held out the olive branch.

In a return to his original form, Trump has managed to raise temperatures by categorically holding China responsible for both trade deficits as well as currency manipulation. Besides he has also fixed it with paternal responsibility for the misbehaviour of North Korea. In a style more reminiscent of Hollywood heroes such as Rambo or Terminator, he has issued a dire warning — that if China doesn’t solve the problem, US will do it — on its own.

For China, which is hyper-sensitive to criticism and which lays much store in sending and receiving signals with great subtlety and nuance, this must be a rude shock. Confronting a leader who doesn’t care a damn for those attributes and who gives as good as he gets, will be a new challenge for them.

For Trump too, this is surely his first real and big foreign policy test. His interactions with Angela Merkel and Theresa May did not have any great expectations attached to them. They were allies in any case, even if there were the occasional quarrels, and there was hardly any doubt about who called the shots. Now, he meets another world leader who is arguably his equal in power and influence and who can’t be fired away like those on his television shows.

First impressions count

A lot rests on the first impressions the two leaders form of each other. History has shown that both deterioration as well as progress in relations is possible based on these impressions. Revisionist historians have held that the poor impression that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev formed of John F Kennedy, then US president, at their first summit in Vienna in 1961 was one of the main reasons for the Cuban missile crisis that developed in October 1962. In contrast, when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had their first summit in Geneva, they both came away with the impression that it was possible to do business with each other, and that led to progress in arms reduction talks and easing of the Cold War in the subsequent years.

As Trump meets Xi, who will get the measure of whom? Who will blink first? The world waits with quivering anticipation. Interesting days lie ahead.

Published on April 05, 2017

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