What are Trump’s plans?
Trump is expected to land in Beijing on Wednesday afternoon for what China is billing as a “state visit-plus”. That lofty designation suggests China’s nominally communist rulers will welcome the world’s most famous capitalist with a show-stopping display of pomp and circumstance designed to flatter his ego and win, if not his heart then at least his acquiescence.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the red-carpet welcome was payback for the “considerate” reception offered to Xi Jinping earlier this year at the US president’s Mar-a-Lago estate: “We Chinese people believe that courtesy calls for reciprocity.”
“You can believe it will be to the tenth power,” Orville Schell, a veteran China watcher who is chronicling Trump’s Asian journeys for Vanity Fair, says of Trump’s likely reception in Beijing.
During his two-night stay, Trump will tour the 15th century Forbidden City, dine with Xi and his celebrity wife Peng Liyuan and attend a glamorous state dinner in Tiananmen Square. He will also hold a series of face-to-face meetings with Xi, with whom he has enjoyed an on-off bromance since his inauguration in January.
Before arriving, Trump said he had high hopes for the China-leg of his tour. “I like him a lot. I call him a friend. He considers me a friend,” he said of Xi, although the Chinese leader is not known to have ever referred to the US president in such intimate terms.
Why is China rolling out such a red carpet?
Experts say China’s leaders are hoping to woo their American visitor with a headline-grabbing, ego-massaging show of respect that Trump can use to project power back home in the US.
But Beijing is also hoping to make itself look great again – both within China and around the world – through Trump’s presence on Chinese soil.
“China wants good photo ops to show the domestic audience that Xi is equal to Trump, and China is almost guaranteed to get that,” says Jeff Wasserstrom, a professor of modern Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine.
Last month Xi proclaimed the start of “a new era” of Chinese power at a major Communist party convention in Beijing. Trump’s visit represents another high-profile chance to trumpet the rise of China – and Xi – to the world.
“Xi and Trump have the opportunity to jointly open a new chapter in history,” an editorial in the state-run Global Times said on Wednesday, championing Trump’s visit as a chance to show off “the rising China”.
“For Xi it’s about his own image and trying to flatter and cajole Trump to play nice with China,” Ely Ratner, a China expert at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP.
What will Xi and Trump talk about?
North Korea and economic issues will hog the agenda.
Trump and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, are expected to push Xi to take further action to rein in Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile, Wilbur Ross, the US commerce secretary, will spearhead potentially thorny negotiations over trade.
However, experts are pessimistic on both fronts. Having already backed two rounds of United Nations security council resolutions against Pyongyang, most doubt Beijing has much more to offer. Observers also suspect Trump will return from China with little more than tweet-able, short-term business deals.
“Nobody expects a lot to come out of this trip,” says Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Trump administration hopes for some deliverables but they don’t have anything lined up yet, the whole thing is a work in progress.”
What won’t they be talking about?
Human rights activists and even members of Trump’s own party have urged him to challenge Xi over the crackdown that his five years in power has seen unfold in China. In a letter to the president, two prominent Republicans urged him to raise the “forced isolation” and ongoing surveillance of Liu Xia, the wife of late Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and call for the release of political prisoners including the jailed Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti. They also petitioned Trump to challenge Xi’s alleged erosion of Hong Kong’s political freedoms.
Few truly expect such topics to be raised by the US’ deal-making president who has expressed admiration for authoritarian leaders including Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte and Xi himself.
Observers believe Trump is also unlikely to complicate talks by raising the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and Beijing’s controversial militarisation of the region.
What could go wrong?
In democratic South Korea, Trump has faced some noisy street protests, at which critics have held up banners reading: “Trump not welcomed” and “Say no to Trump”. His time in authoritarian China is likely to be entirely dissent-free.
Instead, the most likely source of risk may come from Trump himself and his habit of firing off early morning Twitter salvos with a tendency to outrage or offend. The billionaire’s favourite means of communication is blocked in China but Trump is unlikely to have any difficulty tunnelling under the Great Firewall of China to vent, should he so desire. Chinese officials will be anxiously scanning Trump’s feed for any rogue tweets that might put their leadership’s nose out of joint.