The Presidents Xi and Trump have several things in common: both entered professions in which their fathers gave them natural advantages. (Xi Jinping’s father, the revolutionary hero Xi Zhongxun, helped build China’s Communist Party; Donald Trump inherited a fortune, and a real-estate business, from his father, Fred.) Xi and Trump both perceive the world in zero-sum terms. Both dispute the notion of loyal opposition. And both favor coercion over consensus.
But, in most respects, Trump struck the Chinese leadership as an oddity, and, as soon as Donald Trump became President, Chinese leaders started reading his books in search of clues to his thinking. From “The Art of the Deal” they concluded, among other things, that Trump’s theatrical demands are only a tool of negotiation. Trump’s approach, according to Cheng Li, of the Brookings Institution, who researches Chinese élite politics, was clear: “You should put some of your demands outrageously high, so you will never be a loser.”
The Chinese leaders’ reading paid off. When Trump and Xi met for the first time, at Mar-a-Lago, in May, Xi was unruffled by Trump’s assertions of bravado, including his revelation, during dessert, that the United States was about to fire missiles at Syria. Xi succeeded in handling Trump. Emerging from the “Citrus Summit,” Trump made no mention of tariffs or trade war; he proclaimed, “great chemistry—not good, but great” and hailed Xi as a “very good man” with an “incredibly talented wife.” Trump, like many, had looked at Xi’s genial half-smile and succumbed to the misreading that they were in agreement. A Chinese editor in Beijing once told me, of Xi, “He’s round on the outside and square on the inside; he looks flexible, but inside he is very hard.”
Xi, for his part, did not bother to reciprocate Trump’s outpouring of emotion. Though Trump asserted that he would succeed in persuading Xi to choke off trade to North Korea, as a way to curb its nuclear program. (Trump tweeted, “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea.”) An Arab foreign minister who visited Beijing shortly after the trip told me privately that, given all of Trump’s campaign talk of China “raping” the United States, Chinese officials were very pleased to have mollified him at his own country club.
Unsurprisingly, the one-way romance proved fragile. Last week, after Trump realized that Xi was not going to pressure Pyongyang into submission, [the White House announced sanctions](https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/josh-rogin/wp/2017/06/29/the-trump-administration-calls-chinas-bluff-on-north-korea/?utm_term=.70a57642645d against Chinese entities accused of aiding North Korea’s weapons programs. The Administration also announced a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, moved U.S. ships into contested waters in the South China Sea, and dusted off threats of tariffs and a trade war. In a dyspeptic phone call with Trump, Xi complained about these moves as “negative factors.”
Then things got worse. On July 4th, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un personally led the test-launch of the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. Kim defiantly crossed a de-facto red line that Trump had drawn in January, when he said that such a test “won’t happen.” For most Presidents, the public failure of a central pillar of foreign policy would be humbling, but Trump is disconnected from the details of diplomacy, and he directed his frustration, via Twitter, toward China: “So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try!”
Now the U.S. and China can, in theory, start the real work of forging a response to the Korean crisis. John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University, in Seoul, told me, “Unfortunately, Xi’s own ties with Kim Jong-un are tenuous, and thus Beijing is of not much use in getting a read on Pyongyang or facilitating diplomacy. Trump, for his part, seems to be moving away from the notion that China can solve the North Korea problem for him, which is a mark of progress in his learning curve.”
At the G-20 meeting in Hamburg this week, the world’s attention will focus largely on Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin. But Trump’s meeting with Xi will have more immediate relevance in dealing with the Korea crisis. In an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Thursday, Jake Sullivan and Victor Cha, foreign-policy advisers in the Obama and Bush Administrations, respectively, proposed a new approach to getting China invested in freezing the North Korean missile tests. Instead of threatening North Korea with cutting off trade, they propose, in effect, paying it to cut off missile tests. “The basic trade would be Chinese disbursements to Pyongyang, as well as security assurances, in return for constraints on North Korea’s program. . . . If North Korea cheated, China would not be receiving what it paid for. The logical thing would be for it to withhold economic benefits until compliance resumed.” The Times outlined a similar idea in an editorial of its own this week.
This approach is no silver bullet, but, in the “land of lousy options,” as diplomats call the North Korea problem, it is as good as any, in part because it does not rest on a false understanding of the other party. The relationship between Xi and Trump–leaders of the world’s two largest economies, a rising power and an addled power, straining to coexist—may well prove to be the most consequential diplomatic liaison of its time.
It is too soon to know whether Xi and Trump could build a genuine relationship, but, until now, they have been operating on separate wavelengths, intersecting only at moments of superficial understanding. In Chinese, this is known as “a chicken talking to a duck.” Both sides are talking, but neither truly understands the other.