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Expert Voices: The Trump-Xi Summit (April 6-7, 2017)

In advance of the summit meeting between President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping, NBR invited staff, affiliates, and other members of its network of experts to comment on challenges and opportunities for the U.S.-China relationship.


U.S.-China military-to-military relations have produced some tangible improvement in recent years. This has been helpful to stability in the Indo-Pacific region, primarily through measures that reduce the risk of miscalculation. For example, through our engagement with Chinese navy counterparts, we have a voluntary process—Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). With CUES, we have a protocol for communication and interaction between navy aircraft and surface vessels in international waters.

When President Trump meets with President Xi, the leaders will have the opportunity to further develop the mil-mil component of U.S.-China relations. Such steps could go a long way toward maintaining stability in this challenging region.

ADMIRAL JONATHAN GREENERT, former U.S. Chief of Naval Operations; current holder of NBR’s John M. Shalikashvili Chair in National Security Studies


By accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president and briefly raising questions about the United States’ one-China policy, President Trump abruptly upended Beijing’s assumption that it could readily “shape” this pragmatic businessman with advantageous economic deals. To Beijing’s chagrin, the predictable Obama administration’s firm commitment to managing the Taiwan issue so as to avoid a clash was replaced by a U.S. president prepared for more tension in relations with China as he sought leverage and advantage in “making America great again.” Taiwan colluded in the phone call but remained anxious that the longer-term outlook might see it used as a bargaining chip in great-power politics.

ROBERT SUTTER, Professor of Practice of International Affairs, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

Given the informal setting, building a personal relationship will likely be high on the list of priorities for the two presidents. This is important for managing challenges in the bilateral relationship and for restoring trust—especially as the trust deficit widened during the presidential campaign. Furthermore, the optics of Xi visiting Mar-a-Lago will no doubt play well in China.

Although the meeting will likely be less focused on substance and deliverables, the regional issues that Xi and Trump do address should provide clarity on the new administration’s priorities when it comes to China. On the security front, North Korea will be a test of how the two sides can work through an entrenched problem. Moreover, mention of Chinese assertiveness in maritime disputes would be welcomed by U.S. allies and friends in the region, who will be watching the meeting closely. In many ways, the agenda will also be helpful for understanding who is driving China policy in the Trump administration.

Just as important as what is talked about at the Trump-Xi summit is how it is talked about. Notably, although President Trump will likely reaffirm the U.S. one-China policy, as he did during his phone call with Xi in February, it remains to be seen whether he will explicitly refer to the long-standing articles of this policy—the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances. It also remains to be seen whether Trump will use the more conciliatory rhetoric on U.S.-China relations that Secretary of State Tillerson did during his recent visit to Beijing.

TIFFANY MA, Senior Director for Political and Security Affairs, NBR


Maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas are key flashpoints in East Asia today, involving a volatile mix of claims to territorial sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction. The Trump administration, however, has not yet fully assembled its Asia team, much less developed a strategy or approach toward the region and China. Thus, Asia and the world will be closely watching how Xi and Trump approach these disputes, both during their meeting in April and beyond.

M. TAYLOR FRAVEL, Associate Professor of Political Science, Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Principal Investigator, Maritime Awareness Project


What's wrong with this picture? One of the leaders participating in the April 6–7 summit has played successfully to his public by calling for national rejuvenation, and the other (speaking at Davos) has proclaimed the benefits of further opening in the global economy. This apparent reversal in the customary stances of American and Chinese leaders shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But it raises the following question: Can the United States and China have an economic relationship based on the belief that mutual gains from trade and investment are possible, or is the new normal one in which the two economic powers seek to make economic gains at the expense of each other? Trade deals, or trade wars?

I propose that the United States and China hold an economic summit—and replace the tired performances at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue—at which a new articulation of their economic relations, past and present, are spelled out, and at which the two sides can state precisely where their economic exchanges have brought benefits and where they have not. Negotiations over bilateral investment agreements, intellectual property, and currency valuation, among other issues, are likely to go nowhere without some new consensus on the mutual gains of the economic relationship.

MARK FRAZIER, Academic Director, India China Institute, New School; Editor, Asia Policy

President Xi’s visit comes during a time of mounting mistrust in the U.S.-China economic relationship. President Trump has criticized Chinese trade practices, accusing China of unfairly altering the playing field to benefit Chinese industry, to the detriment of U.S. jobs. In the United States, the benefits of trade and globalization are being questioned, as the Trump administration has taken a seemingly protectionist approach toward trade policy. It will be interesting to see if Presidents Trump and Xi can clear the air and develop a consensus on the future direction of the U.S.-China economic relationship. U.S. public opinion in support of free trade is stronger than some might think, and there are also real challenges for U.S. industry in international markets that require greater attention to addressing barriers. Open dialogue and exchange is a critical component of any relationship, and this visit will set the tone for future talks between the two countries.

ANDY NGUYEN, Senior Project Manager, NBR


The theft of American intellectual property by Chinese state-backed hackers continues unabated despite promises to the contrary. The costs to the U.S. economy remain in the range of $250–$600 billion. I hope President Trump will raise this issue with President Xi at their summit meeting and follow up with the concrete recommendations outlined in the updated report by The Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property.

SLADE GORTON, former U.S. Senator from Washington State and Counselor at NBR


Secretary of State Tillerson asserted during his Northeast Asia tour that the U.S. policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea is at an end, and that all options are now on the table. The resulting policy review presumably includes a re-evaluation of China’s role in the denuclearization process and whether patience with Beijing is declining as well. Beijing likely views the policy review that is underway with some degree of trepidation and is preparing policy options that would pull the United States back to more familiar—and comfortable—terrain. President Trump and his team should be mindful of Beijing’s inclination to do so, and in his meetings with General Secretary Xi in Florida, President Trump would do well to avoid jumping into new commitments with China, at least while the review is ongoing. As a first step, it is important to remember that an outcome of the six-party process was that a unilaterally minded early Bush administration became enmeshed in a multilateral process that constrained U.S. options and played to Chinese strengths.

ROY KAMPHAUSEN, Senior Vice President for Research, NBR


While Xi might glory in the presidential protocol and enjoy some Trump hospitality, he’ll have an eagle eye on his home front. That’s because he’s up for “re-election” at the Communist Party’s 19th Congress this fall. Xi was made general secretary—the most important of his three jobs—at the party’s 18th Congress in 2012. Since then he has solidified his leadership by assuming executive powers traditionally held by China’s premier and by using an “anti-corruption” campaign to silence his opponents. He appears to be the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, but by centralizing so much authority in himself, Xi might be vulnerable if China falls into economic crisis or social unrest. Still, he should now have a clear path to his second term as general secretary when the 19th Congress meets this fall. The big question in Beijing and among foreign China watchers is whether Xi will want an unprecedented third term. If no apparent successor appears at this fall’s Congress, it will hint strongly that Xi plans to stay in the top party post until 2027, and that could undo the complex factional bargains beneath the party’s nominally collective leadership.



Xi will arrive in Florida with the same general objective as when he met President Trump’s predecessor at Sunnylands four years ago: keep the bilateral relationship non-conflictual despite increasing divergences and frictions. Xi and Obama found climate change to be favorable terrain for amicable discussions. Finding some common ground for potential U.S.-China cooperation this time will be a challenging task, as the presidential meeting will take place against the backdrop of intense China-bashing during the presidential campaign, a postelection phone call with Tsai Ing-wen, public musing about the one-China policy, criticism of China as the “grand champion” of currency manipulation, and criticism of Beijing as lacking commitment to address the nuclear challenge from North Korea. Xi nevertheless sounded reassured after Secretary of State Tillerson, replicating the Chinese official rhetoric, vowed in Beijing last week to “avoid conflict and confrontation,” build “mutual respect,” and strive for “win-win cooperation.”

How will Beijing position itself to deal with a new administration that it sees as blowing hot and cold? What could replace climate change as a venue for Sino-U.S. cooperation? Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative, the Belt and Road (or One Belt, One Road) initiative (BRI), which has pledged to invest billions of dollars in Eurasian infrastructure construction, could become Beijing’s new calling card—a common denominator with President Trump’s plans to deliver a massive infrastructure package for the United States.

President Xi might use the upcoming opportunity to invite the United States to join in BRI, starting with becoming a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He may also offer to invest in U.S. infrastructure as a way to prove China’s goodwill and cooperative mood.

Although welcoming Chinese investment in U.S. infrastructure projects under the BRI umbrella could appear to be an appealing proposition on the surface, supporting Beijing’s efforts to build road, rail, and pipelines across Eurasia would play against U.S. interests in the long term. BRI is not just a series of overseas infrastructure investments but an instrument designed to help China expand its regional influence at the United States’ expense. If Trump endorses BRI, the United States may appear to be accepting Chinese preponderance in Asia.

NADÈGE ROLLAND, Senior Fellow, Political and Security Affairs, NBR


There will not be a better time to underscore the importance of Southeast Asia as a region. It sits at the strategic crossroads between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and controls the regional economic and military lifeline. As resident powers in the broader Indo-Pacific, both the United States and China should consider long-term engagement strategies with Southeast Asia, rather than viewing regional states merely as bargaining chips or proxies in the strategic rivalry between two countries. Above all, the United States and China should understand that military forces alone could never be the long-term solution that the region collectively embraces.

Instead, both Presidents Trump and Xi should consider investing further in ASEAN as the primary driving force for regional architecture and focus on further institutionalizing the East Asia Summit. While multilateralism may not have an immediate impact for complex and challenging issues like the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the long-term future of a diverse region rests on a logic of “stronger together” rather than “peace through strength” alone. After all, the confluence of traditional and nontraditional security challenges is now far too complex for any regional state to only advance its own interests above any other.

Although the Trans-Pacific Partnership has fallen by the wayside, both Washington and Beijing should nonetheless devote energy to strengthening the region’s economic architecture—in which the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership forms one crucial pillar, among others. Furthermore, As Southeast Asian states continue to develop their domestic infrastructure and increase trade with one another, the United States and China should facilitate the alignment of those plans with broader regional connectivity frameworks. A Southeast Asia that is increasingly integrated will become a primary engine of growth and a stabilizing force for the Indo-Pacific. In the end, while the summit between Trump and Xi is a reminder of what pragmatic bilateralism can achieve, we should not forget that the future of the Indo-Pacific rests on the ability of the United States and China to drive the process of regional architecture building.

EVAN A. LAKSMANA, Senior Researcher, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta; Visiting Fellow, NBR

The report "U.S.-China Relations in Strategic Domains" assesses U.S.-China relations in the maritime, nuclear, cyberspace, and space domains, as well as through the lens of people-to-people and military-to-military exchanges. Employing an innovative approach to represent both U.S. and Chinese perspectives, the members of the study team jointly examine opportunities for collaboration. Learn more.

Maritime Awareness Project (MAP)

In partnership with Sasakawa USA, NBR has launched an innovative platform for analyses and data on maritime security that combines interactive mapping technology with analyses from leading maritime experts.