At Stake When Xi and Trump Meet: The Possibility of a New Cold War
It could foretell whether these two giants — one an established but anxious superpower, the other an ambitious, impatient rising power — are destined to enter a new era of Cold War-like confrontation.
Remarkably, given the stakes involved, the two sides plan no other formal meetings during this gathering of the Group of 20 industrialized nations that begins on Friday. Nor do they appear to have much of an agenda, beyond the trade grievances that Mr. Trump has complained about for months.
That is a testament to how much trade and the personal chemistry between Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi have come to dominate the relations between the United States and China. While these are only subplots in a larger drama that also includes a military contest in the Pacific and nuclear negotiations with North Korea, they could also define the next chapter in that relationship.
In particular, the Saturday dinner — Mr. Trump’s first face-to-face encounter with Mr. Xi in more than a year — will be the biggest test yet of whether the president’s assiduous cultivation of the Chinese leader can survive his escalating tariffs against Chinese exports.
“What we’re about to see in Buenos Aires is the collision of the personal and the structural,” said Kurt M. Campbell, who devised President Barack Obama’s “Asia Pivot” policy as an assistant secretary at the State Department. “Trump is almost desperate to impress and get Xi to like him. But the structural forces are driving them in different directions.”
Administration officials said they had briefed Mr. Trump on the full range of issues between the United States and China. Some inside the White House compare his relationship with Mr. Xi to a shock absorber. Even if the matters on the table are unpleasant, Mr. Trump is likely to avoid a bruising exchange with the Chinese president.
“I’m sure they’ll be very respectful of each other,” Larry Kudlow, Mr. Trump’s chief economic adviser, told reporters on Tuesday. He expressed confidence in Mr. Trump’s negotiating skills, noting that “both sides will arm their leaders with talking points.”
“How they play it,” he added, “I don’t know.”
Much of the uncertainty stems from Mr. Trump’s mercurial personality. In the days leading up to the meeting, he has vowed to press ahead with a plan to raise tariffs on Chinese goods to 25 percent from 10 percent. Yet he has also expressed optimism that he and Mr. Xi could strike a deal, which would almost certainly require him to relent on tariffs.
Leaving for Buenos Aires on Thursday, Mr. Trump managed to sound hopeful and wary at the same time. “I think we’re very close to doing something with China,” he said, “but I don’t know that I want to do it.”
Mr. Xi has also voiced confidence about the meeting. But if Mr. Trump embarrasses him by pushing too hard — even after repeatedly calling him a good friend — such treatment could sour the Communist leader’s view of the United States for years to come. Mr. Xi has already been criticized at home for what some see as his misjudgment of Mr. Trump.
“Xi understands the meeting will be crucial in shaping the future,” said Zhang Baohui, an international relations expert at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “A successful meeting will at least slow down the momentum of a new Cold War. A bad meeting will make that irreversible.”
There are plenty of other potential land mines: China continues to build military installations in the South China Sea, risking clashes with American warships. Mr. Trump accused the Chinese of interfering in the midterm elections, though he provided little evidence. Vice President Mike Pence charged Beijing with predatory lending to vulnerable neighbors and with waging an influence campaign on American think tanks and universities.
Only two weeks ago, an economic summit meeting in Papua New Guinea ended in rancor after Mr. Pence and Mr. Xi gave dueling speeches on trade and left the other countries unable to agree on the wording of even a routine communiqué.
Mr. Xi also announced plans to visit North Korea next year, which could complicate an issue where he and Mr. Trump have generally found common ground. When the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, visited Mr. Xi in China in May, Mr. Trump complained that it slowed down the momentum for his own diplomacy with Mr. Kim.
“This is one of those rare moments in history where a geopolitical turning point is upon us, and it is clear to the entire world at the very moment,” said Evan S. Medeiros, a former China adviser to Mr. Obama who now teaches at Georgetown University.
“Trump has framed the relationship with China solely in terms of competition, with trade at the top of the agenda,” he said. “If they cannot find a way forward on trade, then the relationship may be imperiled, as the forces of acrimony and entropy take over.”
Adding to the uncertainty is the cacophony of voices surrounding Mr. Trump.
His staff is divided between mainstream Republicans like Mr. Kudlow and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who are counseling him to compromise with Mr. Xi; hard-liners like Robert Lighthizer, the United States trade representative, who is pushing for China to undertake sweeping changes; and nationalists like Peter Navarro, the director of the White House trade office, who would like to see Mr. Trump impose ever higher tariffs, even if it leads to a divorce between the world’s two largest economies.
These aides feud publicly on television, and privately over issues like whether Mr. Navarro should be allowed to attend the Group of 20 meeting. After initially being excluded, he wrangled a seat after intense lobbying, and will now be on hand to offer his views to Mr. Trump.
Mr. Xi’s advisers may not be as splintered as the quarrelsome Trump team, but they, too, seem to represent disparate ideas. Wang Huning, a member of the powerful seven-man Politburo Standing Committee and one of Mr. Xi’s closest confidants, is a staunch advocate of authoritarian rule. But Liu He, China’s point man on the trade negotiations, is a Harvard-educated technocrat who many believe has the heart of a reformer.
Mr. Xi, who went to school with Mr. Liu, has shown little of his friend’s inclinations; in fact, he has shown the opposite. A former American official who recently met with Mr. Liu said it was difficult to decipher whether Mr. Liu actually met with Mr. Xi frequently.
“If you believe Liu is a real reformer, then the evidence suggests that Xi isn’t listening to him,” said another American, Matthew P. Goodman, an economist specializing in Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Instead, the stage is set for what one Chinese commentator calls a new bipolar world. Yan Xuetong, a professor at Tsinghua University, said in an essay in the coming issue of Foreign Affairs that Mr. Xi was already competing for new friends among America’s allies, and that there were few common threats that could force the countries to cooperate.
“The global fallout of Trumpism has already pushed some countries toward China in ways that would have seemed inconceivable a few years ago,” Mr. Yan wrote.
Though Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi come from very different systems, they bear similarities: both are strongmen, both are ardent nationalists, and both are taking their countries in different directions than their predecessors. With his tariffs, Mr. Trump has shown a willingness to upend decades of Republican Party allegiance to free trade.
Equally, both leaders are facing economic headwinds, which could be exacerbated by a prolonged trade war. Mr. Trump repeatedly asks his aides about the state of the economy, officials said, and some are warning him that he could be blamed for market turbulence and job losses from tariffs.
In China, where the economy is softening, Mr. Xi has faced grumbling among some liberals who have criticized him for the way he has handled the United States. Long Yongtu, a former vice commerce minister, said it was “unwise” for Mr. Xi to place retaliatory tariffs on American soybeans.
Mr. Trump has emerged from previous meetings with Mr. Xi, in Palm Beach, Fla., and Beijing, with fulsome praise for his “good friend.” Most people expect to hear those sentiments again — and they may even be tied to some kind of compromise on trade. The question is, will that be enough to patch up all the other conflicts?
“The president has quite artfully kept his friendship with Xi in public view,” said Orville H. Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. “But I doubt it will dissolve the myriad other forms of competitive, even adversarial, sentiment that have been arising in other sectors of the relationship.”
Mark Landler reported from Buenos Aires, and Jane Perlez from Beijing.