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From Tweeting to Talking: The Trump-Xi Relationship from Florida to Hamburg

Alissa Wang, G20 and BRICS Research Groups
April 10, 2017

On April 6-7, 2017, the new U.S. president Donald Trump and the veteran Chinese president Xi Jinping held their first face-to-face talks in a two-day meeting at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida — otherwise known as the "winter White House." Despite the tense tone set by Trump his earlier tweets that "China has done little to help" with the North Korean situation and that "the meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits," the meeting was positive and cooperative.. Trump stated afterward that the United States has made "tremendous progress" in its relationship with China. Xi stated that there are "a thousand seasons to make the China-US relationship work, and no reason to break it." Now that the two leaders have returned to their capitals, what does their new relationship promise for their global leadership at their next encounter, coming soon at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7-8, 2017?

Hamburg the central focus will be the three aims of building resilience, improving sustainability and assuming responsibility. One of the most successful areas of China-U.S. cooperation likely to materialize into global co-leadership at the Hamburg Summit is trade. This is part of Germany's first priority of building resilience. According to U.S. press briefings, the Mar-a-Lago meeting focused on pursuing a "more balanced economic relationship, specifically on trade." In addition to long-term goals, specific action items for the short term were addressed and a 100-day plan to advance discussions on trade was produced. In terms of directionality, the U.S. expects to see increased American exports to China to reduce the trade deficit. This is based on a recognition that the two sides have very similar economic interests and that there are many opportunities in China's market for exports and investment. China "expressed an interest in reducing their net trade balance because of the impact it's having on money supply and inflation." This was the first time China made such an indication to the U.S. in a bilateral context, indicating a high degree of convergence in interests and willingness on the Chinese side to open its market to American exports. The results of the 100-day plan will likely emerge just in time for the G20 summit, which can expect to see the fruits of a more balanced and robust China-U.S. trade relationship aligned with host Germany's call to deepen cooperation on trade and investment.

The second area of potential cooperation is peace and security, which contributes to Germany's priority of assuming responsibility. The German agenda recognizes that "the G20 must assume responsibility in further areas that affect global peace and security." While other key issues high on the German agenda such as migration, African development and terrorism were not addressed in detail at Mar-a-Lago, the overall tone of the meeting in the face of pressing regional security issues indicated the willingness of China and the U.S. to cooperate on matters of assuming global responsibility. Having a potentially destabilizing effect, however, was Trump's attack on Syria in response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons on April 4th. Yet when Trump informed Xi of the attack and the rationale behind it, Xi indicated that he "understood that such a response is necessary when people are killing children." Another pressing security topic was North Korea. Here Xi and Trump had a wide-ranging and comprehensive discussion, reiterating previous commitments to denuclearize North Korea and implement United Nations Security Council resolutions. In addition, the leaders discussed regional and maritime security, with Trump noting the importance of international norms and protection of human rights.

To continue work on the issues important to bilateral relations, the U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue — a high-level framework for negotiations to be overseen by the two presidents — was established. It is based on four pillars: diplomatic and security dialogue, comprehensive economic dialogue, dialogue on law enforcement and cybersecurity, and dialogue on social and cultural issues. Thus, one can expect that even in face of sensitive security issues, China and the U.S. are capable of reaching consensus.

Nonetheless a challenge arises in Germany's aim to improve sustainability. During the Xi-Trump meeting, where many issues were discussed comprehensively, environmental challenges and climate change did not make it into the conversation. Given that China and the United states are the world's two largest greenhouse gas emitters, this omission suggests potential challenges to making meaningful progress on sustainability at the Hamburg Summit. In addition, the German priorities of sustainable development, digital technology, health and the empowerment of women also were not addressed, although digital technology cooperation might be facilitated through the new framework's cybersecurity pillar.

Overall, China-U.S. co-leadership will likely improve global trade as a driver of economic growth and cooperation in the security sphere. However, there remains more work to be done by both countries as the G20 Hamburg Summit approaches on the equally important aim of improving sustainability.

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Alissa WangAlissa Wang is the chair of summit studies for the BRICS Research Group, and a research assistant at the G7 and G8 Research Group, the G20 Research Group, and the Global Health Diplomacy Program, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Trinity College at the University of Toronto. She is pursuing an undergraduate degree with a specialist in international relations, a major in global health and a minor in political science. She is an editor for the reports produced by the G20 Research Group summit studies team, an analyst for the G7 Research Group summit studies team, and works on compliance research. Alissa is interested in Chinese history and politics as well as China's role in global governance. She was a member of the field team at the G7 Elmau Summit in Germany in 2015, the G7 Ise Shima Summit in Japan in 2016 and the G20 Hangzhou Summit in China in 2016.

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