Notions of a significant US-China deal at G-20 are fanciful

Notions of a significant US-China deal at G-20 are fanciful
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As he heads into his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G-20) in Buenos Aires, there are signs that President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden, Sanders lead field in Iowa poll The Memo: Cohen fans flames around Trump Memo Comey used to brief Trump on dossier released: report MORE wants to end the trade war he started and cut a deal. 

There are at least three problems with that approach to the summit.

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The first is that, as his advisors correctly point out, Trump didn’t start this. China’s rapid development, Xi’s stillborn reform program and Chinese practices, which the U.S. and other nations have objected to for decades:

  • its relatively closed economy;
  • treatment of intellectual property;
  • non-tariff barriers to investment;
  • industrial policies that violate World Trade Organization rules; and
  • disinterest in reciprocity meant that an adjustment of economic relations was overdue before Trump took office.

He didn’t flip a switch to launch the current tensions; he can’t flip a switch to end them.

The second is that this is not merely a trade war. Trump may have begun with the limited goal of balancing trade with China. But as made clear by:

The United States and China are engaged in a global competition for preeminence, of which trade is one aspect. China seeks the kind of influence the U.S. has wielded since World War II, and the U.S. is not willing to surrender its status.

Those are the stakes the Trump administration has defined. Xi is more circumspect in his pronouncements, but he too is focused on the global balance of power.  

Lastly, no real solution can possibly be reached in Argentina. The disagreements between the U.S. and China are profound, various and structural.

Beijing believes it can’t satisfy U.S. demands unless it surrenders its right to national greatness and fails in its obligation to raise the Chinese people’s standard of living and increase their security.

From the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP's) point of view, the U.S. seeks changes so sweeping that they amount to regime change. America’s prescription for the CCP, as laid out in the Pence speech, is a suicide pill.

The Trump administration’s frank embrace of competition and “America First” mindset, moreover, have convinced many Chinese that the U.S. seeks concessions not for the sake of improved trade, but to preserve American hegemony.

Their suspicions are easy to understand: The Trump administration asks Chinese (and Americans) to believe that the U.S. can be both radically self-interested and a disinterested champion of fair play. Xi Jinping won’t buy it.

Under these conditions, any deal reached in Buenos Aires is likely to be impulsive, unprincipled and unsustainable. That doesn’t mean the summit is bound to fail. Too much has been made of deals since 2016. In U.S.-China relations, as in other policy spheres, deals have limited utility.

One ghost-written 1987 bestseller and endless political branding have given deal a status in the geostrategic lexicon that it doesn’t deserve. Bargaining is a feature of diplomacy, not diplomacy itself.

To make deals, the measure of interactions between American presidents and foreign leaders is harmful to public understanding and destructive to America’s foreign relations. 

The goal of the Buenos Aires summit and subsequent diplomacy should not be a settlement, but a joint commitment to building a framework for managing Sino-U.S. competition. This will be the labor of years, perhaps decades, and will require as much coevolution as dealmaking.

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It is a process that will play out worldwide in military, economic, cultural, ideological and technological spheres. Both nations’ domestic politics, third-country interests, multilateral bodies, global media and non-governmental organizations, new technologies and man-made and natural disasters will play unforeseeable roles in shaping U.S.-China competition.

Beijing and Washington have limited control over the direction their relations take. They therefore need, at a minimum, to understand each other’s redlines and to agree on codes of conduct and crisis mitigation measures.  

Buenos Aires could mark the beginning of this process. A short-term agreement to, say, lift tariffs in exchange for China’s purchase of American soybeans or natural gas need not hamper diplomacy.

The danger is that a deal in Argentina will be used by Trump and Xi to paper over differences, declare false victories and proffer false comfort. 

Such a deal would lay the groundwork for doing nothing about America’s greatest long-term strategic challenge: a China on equal footing with the U.S.

Robert Daly is the director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center.