Five Gambits Trump Should Avoid When Negotiating With China’s Xi

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

There are many people who have ideas about what should happen at the Xi-Trump summit. Almost as important, however, is what should not happen.

Here are my suggestions for the top five things President Donald Trump should not do at his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago.

1. Do not go off script, wing it or freelance.

There is no country that parses (or manipulates) words as effectively as China. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson echoed Chinese phrases such as “win-win” and stated that U.S. policy in North Korea had failed, the Chinese were quick to celebrate the remarks. It did not matter that Tillerson had his own ideas about the definition of “win-win” or that his comment concerning policy failure was set in a larger context.

The Chinese will use whatever is said to promote their own narrative. And, as the White House hopefully came to appreciate with the president’s early tweets on the One China policy, taking words back in diplomacy is a messy process that leaves one disadvantaged in future negotiations.

2. Do not sell yourself too cheaply.

There is almost nothing that the Chinese would like more than to take advantage of President Trump’s transactional bargaining tendencies.

They have floated, for example, the possibility of investments in three key battleground states—Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin—or support for an infrastructure fund. It is not difficult to imagine President Trump claiming summit success with a pledge for 30,000 new jobs in three states.

Putting aside the troubling parallels with how China buys off developing countries in Africa and Latin America, it would be a mistake to give away U.S. leverage before the game is really on. After all, the 90-day review of unfair trade practices that the president has ordered is just underway, and what we really want is fair and open market access for U.S. goods and services.

This means a longer-term strategic negotiation based on hard data, not a one-time payoff.

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3. Do not ignore politics.

North Korea and trade are understandably front and center for the Mar-a-Lago meeting. During his March visit to China, however, Secretary Tillerson also indicated that the United States would “continue to advocate for universal values such as human rights and religious freedom.”

Tillerson’s comment matters in many ways: It signals our continued support to embattled activists within China; it reminds the world of the values that the United States represents; and it underpins our support for broader issues of good governance—accountability, transparency and the rule of law—that affect issues ranging from intellectual property rights protection to food safety.

In addition, there is an issue of reciprocity. The United States grants China an open door to advance its values and norms throughout the United States through Confucius Institutes and Chinese government–produced English language radio and television broadcasts; meanwhile, China has moved aggressively to shut down avenues in education and media that promote Western values.

The United States should ensure that it has equal access to the Chinese citizenry. Openness and fairness matter not only in economic markets but also in markets of ideas.

4. Do not practice issue-linkage.

The White House has set getting Chinese cooperation on North Korea as a top priority for the summit. In negotiating with Beijing, however, Washington should not sell out the U.S. presence in the South China Sea or barter trade in exchange for more cooperation.

Not only does the United States have Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and the threat of ramping up additional security cooperation with South Korea and Japan as part of its arsenal, there is also a strong contingent of Chinese foreign policy analysts and officials who would like their government to bring more pressure to bear on North Korea. There is no reason to give China something when we don’t have to.

5. Do not forget that “America first” does not mean America only.

The United States gives and the United States receives. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the United Kingdom and later NATO joined the United States in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The members of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation put anti-terrorism at the top of their agenda at the 2001 forum because the United States asked.

There is meaning in the word alliance. Our partners can also be valuable with regard to China. In negotiating with China, for example, there is strength in numbers. The United States should consult with and use our allies in Europe and the region to pressure China on unfair trade and other practices.

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President Trump has also stated that the United States can “solve” the North Korea problem alone. It might be possible—if imprudent—to take action against North Korea without consulting China. But there should be no action taken without consultation and cooperation with South Korea, a U.S. ally who would be most directly affected by any new U.S. policy initiative. The United States should not and cannot “go it alone.”

Elizabeth C. Economy is the C.V. Starr senior fellow and director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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