Donald Trump and Xi Jinping have just met for the first time since China-US trade talks were abruptly cancelled in May of this year. The meeting has successfully accomplished all that it possibly could have done insofar as both sides have agreed that trade talks should resume in a productive businesslike spirit. Donald Trump went a step further and told the public that he believes “we are getting a little bit closer” to finalising a positive trade deal.
Describing his meeting with Xi Jinping as “excellent”, Trump also announced that previously threatened new tariffs on Chinese imports would not be implemented and that once general issues regarding tariffs are negotiated fully, then the US and China can discuss the situation with Huawei.
This of course is a very good (re)start to trade talks but it is by no means the conclusion. Over the next few months, both sides will need to replace brutal public rhetoric with brutal honesty behind the closed doors of the negotiating rooms, whether in Beijing or Washington. Beyond this, Trump and Xi would benefit from communicating closely with one another throughout the process so as to avoid miscommunications and misunderstandings that have in the past arisen between Chinese and US delegations.
A further benefit of Trump and Xi speaking directly is that as neither needs to answer to anyone else, each leader can afford to forgo diplomatic niceties and instead focus on ultra-realistic discussions framed by the legitimate personal reason that each leader has for the other. Despite cultural differences, Xi and Trump clearly respect the fact that they are leading their powerful and important countries through the proverbial “interesting times” referred to in the well known Chinese expression. This should give both sides an impetus to reach an historic conclusion to the protracted trading disputes.
As such, the momentum of the Xi-Trump meeting at the G20 should help to propel intensive, realistic and honest discussions between the two countries and the two leader that ideally can lead to a win-win deal before the end of the year.
Apart from the Huawei issue is the matter of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. Whilst Trump had previously stated that the US dropping the scandalous charges against Meng could be tied into a wider trade deal, China has tended to blame Canada more for its slavish malfeasance in depriving Meng of basic human rights and civil liberties whilst airing grievances against the US in a generally more private manner. This itself is a demonstration of realism when it comes to China’s approach to the modern United States.
China clearly understands that Donald Trump is likely far more personally sympathetic to Meng than rogue extremists like John Bolton who once let slip that he was primarily responsible for Meng’s heinous ordeal. But since Canada portrays itself as a land of moderation whilst bowing to extremism in the case of Meng, China clearly has no time for a Canadian government which foolishly thinks that acting in an aggressive manner will gain it respect from vastly more powerful nations.
Finally, as Trump concluded his time at the G20 by sending an impromptu invitation to DPRK leader Kim Jong-un to meet with himself and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the DMZ, it becomes all the more clear that when one develops a good personal relationship with Donald Trump, the impossible becomes possible.
In the same way that Kim and Trump’s friendship is one that hardly anyone could have predicted, a Xi and Trump managed trade deal could now become a short to medium term reality after a successful meeting in which both leaders blew away the proverbial cobwebs and got back to business with an eye towards a win-win agreement forged on the fires of realism.