This week the leaders of the worlds two superpowers will meet for their first summit in the sunshine state of Florida. One superpower is the Established force of the world's policeman and has occupied this position since the end of World War II. The other is a rising superpower, the second largest economy in the world and yet still a developing country with no history of ever playing the role of global policeman. For the American President this will be his most important international summit to date and it will be very different from any that he has undertaken so far. Of all the leaders that President Trump has thus met so far none of them can be described as being anything near a rival or even approaching an equal to the United States on the world stage.
While Trump may have been able to take the lead with Britain's Theresa May (literally taking her in hand) and taken kindly to her obsequiousness; been dismissive and frosty with German Chancellor Angela Merkel or chummy with Japan's Shinzo Abe, Trump will have to be very careful and watch himself closely (if that is possible) with the President of China Xi Jinping. This is due to the extraordinary fact that this century could very well witness the United States for the first time since the 1940s being usurped as the number one economy on the planet, by the People's Republic of China, and also that unlike the senior and junior roles (or master/servant) that animate the dynamics of the Anglo-American or US-Japanese alliances, when it comes to China, America is no longer the senior partner, indeed it's debt fuelled economy has become heavily dependent on Chinese money to keep financing such debt.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of President Richard Nixon and his then National Security Advisor, Dr Henry Kissinger's – strategically brilliant and revolutionary foreign policy demarche – The Opening to China. Despite fighting on the same side as allies during WWII against the wicked brutality and savagery of the Imperial Japanese, from the late 1940s onwards until President Nixon and Dr Kissinger engineered The Opening, no diplomatic relations existed between Washington DC and Beijing. Due to the victory of the Communists under Chairman Mao against the American backed nationalists of Chiang Kai-Shek, the United States had decided to recognize the legitimate government of China as being situated in Taiwan despite the fact that Taiwan had a tiny fraction of mainland China's population and could in no way be taken seriously as the ultimate representative of Chinese authority. Thankfully, President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger brought this farce to an end and under Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter full diplomatic relations were re-established between Beijing and Washington DC and the irritant of Taiwan was sidelined in pursuit of building a strong relationship based upon the principles of mutual respect, mutual trust and win-win cooperation between the United States and People's Republic of China.
Despite stresses and strains in the ensuing four decades the Sino-US relationship has evolved and grown into a mature partnership of near equals, perhaps much to the chagrin of certain right-wing nationalist Americans. Now with President Trump and President Xi set to meet each other for the very first time following in the foot steps of Deng Xia Ping with Carter and Reagan; Bush Snr and Clinton with Jiang Zemin and Bush Jnr and Obama with Hu Jintao, the stakes are high. One could not think of two such different leaders in terms of personal style, approach, behaviour, outlook and leadership. It could be described in many ways as the chalk and cheese summit. President Xi is a mature, serious, dignified and highly politically intelligent statesman who has conducted himself both at home and on the world stage with decorum, thoughtfulness and visionary discipline. President Trump by contrast has shown himself to be immature bordering on juvenile; vulgar; absurd; petulant and demonstrably politically superficial.
After his election relations appeared to become fraught when Trump laid into the very political foundation of the US-China relationship – the One China policy. Then ridiculous tweet after tweet flowed from the bile of Trump's fevered mind regarding the South China Sea, North Korea, trade and currency issues. Thankfully whatever wise heads exist in the White House, most likely in the form of the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and perhaps even the Presidential daughter Ivanka, Trump did something he is not normally associated with, he backed down, relinquished and re-affirmed the One China policy. In many ways he had no choice, for perhaps he did not realise that by questioning the One China Policy, in such an idiotic and ignorant manner, the Chinese were unable to begin formal diplomatic engagement with him due to the sacrosanct nature of the One China policy.
Interactions have stabilized since then but been strained by North Korea's missile tests. The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made an excellent first trip to Beijing and struck all the right notes with his comment that: «the U.S.-China relationship has been guided by an understanding of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation». Now, what peace loving, diplomacy focused individual could disagree with that? So too has Mr. Tillerson's attempt to deflect attention away from the attention seeking, sabre rattling of North Korea which has been firing off missiles since January every few weeks in an attempt to insert itself into the international conversation regarding US Asian policy and US-China relations. Indeed, there is a great deal more to US-China relations that how to deal with North Korea's nuclear missile programme. The US-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship on Earth in the 21st century. An Established Superpower used to getting its own way in international relations and dominating the global system will have to learn to make a massive adjustment this century to sharing the world stage with a rising superpower. The peace and well being of world security and prosperity depends on nothing less than China and America getting along and working together in harmonious partnership.
Together there is probably nothing that China and America cannot achieve for the betterment of humankind. This thinking would fall into what I would broadly call the Kissinger Doctrine regarding Sino-American relations – that through wise, enlightened and thoughtful diplomatic engagement and cultural understanding based on the principles of mutual respect and mutual trust together America and China can be the best of friends and partners despite differing political, social and economic systems. There are some, primarily in America and Britain, who do not share this doctrine and would like nothing more than confrontation and conflict to characterize US-China relations. Let us hope the encounter at Mar-a-Lago will put fresh impetus into those who seek to strengthen US-China relations for the benefit of the world as a whole.