For all the focus on high strategy and grand geopolitical narratives, at the end of the day summits between global leaders are largely lost or won according to the personal chemistry that exists between the principle players.
Ronald Reagan famously got along with the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev, bringing about major non-proliferation deals. Richard Nixon, despite coming from an utterly different cultural and political background, enjoyed a strange bond with the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in the early 1970s, pushing forward the historic US China rapprochement. So if Donald Trump and Xi Jinping get along, it could mean peace and prosperity for not just the US and China, but the world in general.
If the rapport is good, things that were impossible one day become very feasible after leaders have met. If it isn’t, there is likely to be rancour and distaste.
We already know that Trump is not a man to conceal his feelings. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got an excruciatingly long handshake. German Chancellor Angela Merkel got nothing at all. Poor British Prime Minister Theresa May even got a very fleeting, furtive holding of the presidential hand. These were each taken as symbols of the meetings and the health of the bilateral relationships overall.
The Chinese play heavily on the symbolism around grand state visits. This is partly because for them the key audience is not the outside world into which their leaders are venturing, but the watching masses back home. For Xi to have secured a visit to Trump’s own intimate space – his Mar-a-Lago Florida resort – is a good start. But the real issue is whether, despite the mountains of preparation that will have gone into this summit, the two men, in the moments of their initial encounter, actually like each other.
Xi has a number of huge advantages on his side. The very fact that the Chinese president leads the second largest economy in the world and the most powerful military after the US, will be reason enough for Trump to want to make a good impression – and he’s someone for whom size matters. For Trump, the vastness of the Chinese economy and its global impact means he will take this visit seriously. It is the most important bilateral relationship that the US has.
A meeting of equals
The Chinese have – so far – very skillfully read the US president. They understand well enough the gap between his rhetoric and the reality underlying it. His provocative remarks late last year about Taiwan did not ruffle their feathers too much. China’s response to other provocations has been measured and careful. In Xi Jinping, Trump is dealing with a politician of immense self-control and confidence. The likelihood is that deep down it will be he, not the visiting Chinese, who will be a little in awe.
Then there is the fact that in an odd way both leaders are deal makers – or at least see themselves as such. They need, for their respective domestic constituencies, tangible things to come out of this visit. They need to deliver good headlines. It is not in their mutual interests to have a fractious, divisive encounter. They will both be on their best behaviour.
Finally, the visit will succeed because the Chinese are perhaps among the most effective in the world now when it comes to diplomacy. They understand the value of flattery, and they know that their president is meeting one of the most egotistical leaders on the planet.
The Chinese will therefore work hard for Xi to make Trump feel important, respected and valued. They will no doubt also be able send subliminal messages that for Trump’s family interests, too, China is now a second home. And they will be keen to get him there as soon as they can on a state visit so that they can engulf him in their sumptuous hospitality, leaving him dizzy with admiration for a country that can simply close down whole cities to allow a president car cavalcade to sail through.
If a strong personal rapport can be created between Trump and Xi, then the world will become a significantly safer place. It will mean the two most powerful men, the ones with the most ability to harm each other, will instead create a direct link that will immediately become utterly crucial when problems occur – as they almost certainly will.
Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, did a poor job of getting to know President Obama when he was elected and Obama’s state visit to China in 2009 was a lost opportunity for cooperation. Xi is a far less wooden, far more charismatic figure. He is also a very natural politician, and, like all gifted politicians, a good actor. The likelihood is that, whatever he might really think of Trump, for the benefit of the party he heads and the country he leads, he will do all he can to get on with him. Who knows: they might even end up as best friends.