In normal circumstances, countries relax tariffs against one another during low key bilateral meetings which typically take place on the soil of one of the two nations whose tariffs are going to be mutually lowered. But for Donald Trump whose infamous trade war on China is more of an ideological act than anything to do with modern economic realities, it appears requisite that he declare “victory” with an over-the-top ‘made for television’ ceremony.
While it is still not confirmed that China and the US have reached a final agreement to end the trade war and advance into a new era of mutual economic openness in respect of bilateral trade, both sides have subtly indicated that things are in fact progressing in a positive way in the aftermath of talks between White House officials and a Chinese team led by Chinese Vice Premier Liu He. One such indication came from Trump himself who Tweeted the following during Liu’s visit to America:
“China’s top trade negotiators are in the U.S. meeting with our representatives. Meetings are going well with good intent and spirit on both sides. China does not want an increase in Tariffs and feels they will do much better if they make a deal. They are correct. I will be meeting with their top leaders and representatives today in the Oval Office. No final deal will be made until my friend President Xi, and I, meet in the near future to discuss and agree on some of the long standing and more difficult points. Very comprehensive transaction…China’s representatives and I are trying to do a complete deal, leaving NOTHING unresolved on the table. All of the many problems are being discussed and will be hopefully resolved. Tariffs on China increase to 25% on March 1st, so all working hard to complete by that date!”
Reading between the lines of classic Trump rhetoric, the US President indicated on the 31st of January that as he intends to finalise the a trade deal with China before the artificially established (unilaterally by the US) deadline of the 1st of March, whilst also insisting that the final deal is signed directly between himself and President Xi Jinping – clearly a bilateral summit between the Chinese and American leadership will need to occur sometime in February.
The matter became all the more intriguing when reports surfaced which indicate that Xi and Trump may meet at the end of February in Da Nang. This is significant for two reasons. First of all, holding such a meeting in a third nation (as opposed to in China or the US) is indicative of the fact that from Donald Trump’s position, he sees the meeting as an historic act of detente with China. In this sense, Trump clearly wants his next meeting with Xi to have the optics of Ronald Reagan’s infamous meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavík or indeed Trump’s own 2018 bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
When extrapolated further, this likewise means that Trump wants the meeting to be surrounded by the kind of pomp and circumstance usually reserved for bilateral meetings between adversaries in a Cold War or neo-Cold War environment, rather than that of two powerful trading partners working through an isolated dispute. This clearly sends a mixed signal to both Americans and to Chinese.
From the American perspective, Trump self-evidently hopes to achieve a “mission accomplished” moment in respect of the trade war by shaking hands with his “friend” Xi Jinping in front of the cameras in Vietnam. On the other hand, by holding the summit in a third nation’s territory, Trump is re-emphasising that the trade war is symptomatic of a broader multi-front neo-Cold War against China that is supposed to conjure images of often tense and mutually suspicious meetings between Soviet and American officials during the original Cold War.
From the Chinese perspective, such a posture is clearly unhelpful as it runs antithetical to the win-win formulation behind China’s goals when reaching agreements with foreign partners. Furthermore, in spite of recent improvements in China-Vietnam neighbourly relations, Vietnam remains strategically close to the US while Sinophobia continues to be present in certain political and social circles in Vietnam. Thus, while China would welcome a Trump meeting in Vietnam as an opportunity to deepen harmonious relations with the Vietnamese government, for the Americans, there is clearly an attempt to send a thinly veiled but ultimately arrogant message to China regarding America’s influence in its erstwhile foe of Vietnam.
Finally, as rumours have been rife that a soon to be announced summit between Donald Trump and DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un will take place in Vietnam, it cannot be excluded that a Trump-Xi summit and a Trump-Kim summit could take place during the same visit to Vietnam by the American President. Such a meeting would hypothetically send another mixed message to the wider world. Such a message would indicate that Donald Trump views China and the DPRK in a similar light – as adversaries who are engaged in a difficult peace process. Such optics would clearly be insulting to China as China’s relations with the US since 1979 have been vastly more productive than the continually strained (non)relations between Washington and Pyongyang. On the other hand, if logically such a meeting could turn into a trilateral meeting between Xi, Kim and Trump, it would be representative of a new age of cooperation between two of the three superpowers and a DPRK government that has embraced peace and a road to international openness. It remains to be seen how such mutually exclusive circumstances might ultimately unfold.
As China’s trade surplus with the US grew during the trade war, the idea that the trade war could be “easily won” as Trump once said it could be, has been exposed as an objective falsehood. That being said, individual sectors in both the US and China have been hit by the trade war and as such, it appears that in the run-up to next year’s elections in the US, Donald Trump needs to declare all of the victories he can in order to appear like a winner before the US voters. This for example is why he has effectively declared victory against Daesh in Syria and Iraq whilst he appears to be on the verge of declaring “victory” in Afghanistan as well.
While China has no need to celebrate the likely end of the trade war with the pomp and circumstance apparently sought by Trump. China is happy to allow Trump to declare a zero-sum victory whilst Chinese officials themselves continue to look for new win-win solutions to a variety of issues regarding China’s trading relations with multiple nations.