Speculations of China’s rise and America’s relative decline have been around for some time, and the Trump presidency has rekindled discussions on the prospect of China replacing the US as the most dominant global power. The Trump-Xi summit in Miami, which starts tomorrow, may fuel this perception in a number of ways.
Although the summit is supposed to be an opportunity for the two leaders to get to know each other, Donald Trump was reportedly going to raise at least three major issues with Xi Jinping: the US trade deficit with China, North Korea’s nuclear program, and the South China Sea disputes.
On the trade deficit issue, Trump would like to curtail Chinese exports to the US by purportedly imposing higher tariffs on Chinese goods, but he is unlikely to get his way. While the unilateral imposition of higher tariffs on Chinese imports will surely invite retaliation by China and possibly trigger a trade war between the world’s largest economies, such moves will also hurt US businesses which have until now reaped enormous benefits from the robust Sino-US trade ties. For ordinary Americans, cheap Chinese imports translates into affordable consumer goods and keeping inflation in check. Taken together, these factors will weaken Trump’s hand in seeking concessions from Xi.
At the summit, Trump also wants to secure China’s help in reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. However, he may have overestimated China’s influence over North Korea. Pyongyang’s recent nuclear and missile tests despite China’s sanctions, including Beijing’s decision to stop importing coal from North Korea, indicate that China may no longer be able to control what happens in Pyongyang. As such, Trump is unlikely to extract any strategic gain from the meeting with Xi over this thorny issue.
Similarly, it is highly unlikely that Trump could get any concessions from his Chinese counterpart over the South China Sea disputes. China has labelled the South China Sea as one of its “core interests”, which implies it will resort to force to assert its rights in the disputed waters. The Obama administration was criticized by some observers as being soft on China by allowing Beijing to expand its stranglehold in the South China Sea over the past eight years. But what else could Obama have done to stop China without risking a war between the two major powers?
Trump would like to stop China’s encroachments in the South China Sea, but his options to effect such an outcome are limited. Tomorrow’s bilateral summit may prove just that.
As it stands, it appears that the summit may turn out to be a stalemate. Trump will not be able to turn the summit into a diplomatic victory for America and himself, but neither would Xi. Both sides are likely to stand their ground on the three contentious issues. However, of the two, Xi may come away better off by buttressing his position and standing in China by having stood firm against Trump. Such an outcome will further encourage speculations of the US’ waning influence in the Asia-Pacific, which was dealt a severe blow by Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and apparent dismissive attitude toward the Obama administration’s strategic pivot to the region.
More importantly, given his isolationist and anti-liberal agenda, coupled with the deep divisions within the American society, Trump may not have enough political capital and will to delay, let alone to reverse, this trend. The power transition between China and the US will therefore accelerate during the Trump presidency unless there is a major and immediate change in the US foreign policy to retain America’s hard-earned global primacy.
Le Hong Hiep is Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.