When Donald Trump meets Xi Jinping in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, on Thursday, could a similar dynamic play out? Not a nuclear face-off, to be sure; America doesn’t have the adversarial relationship toward China that it had toward the Soviet Union in the Cold War era. But could Xi come away with a similar calculation that despite his tough talk on trade and the South China Sea, Trump is less than meets the eye, and will blink if tested?
The parallels are certainly there, starting with the inexperience of the president and the willingness of the Chinese leader to gamble by pushing the Americans. Just as Khrushchev believed of his country, Xi apparently believes that time is on China’s side, despite clear evidence of mounting economic problems at home. And like their Soviet predecessors, today’s Chinese believe that American society is too soft to commit to a long-term competition around the globe.
Perhaps most intriguingly, both summits circle around issues of allied states (East Germany in 1961 and North Korea in 2017) as well as questions of freedom of access (East Berlin back then and the East China Sea today).
Unlike Kennedy, however, Trump has given Xi reasons to believe he is not fully committed to America’s postwar role in the world. The second most famous line from Kennedy’s inaugural address proclaimed that America “would pay any price, bear any burden … support any friend and oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” By contrast, Trump declared in his that “from this moment on, it’s going to be America First.” While the former may have led to mistakes such as the Bay of Pigs, the latter may lead to an America less willing to act to maintain stability in strategic spots around the globe.
Trump’s America First rhetoric alone might have encouraged Xi to see how far the president can be pushed; the wide swings in Trump’s policy toward China may embolden the Chinese leader even further. What started out as a surprisingly hard line against China during the campaign and transition into office has significantly softened in the two months since he took office, leading to charges that Trump has flip-flopped or caved to Chinese pressure. In the days leading up to the summit, the president again took a harder line.
Candidate Trump came to prominence in the Republican primaries in part by promising a trade war with China, and further dug in his heels after the election by talking with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-Wen, and raising doubts as to whether he would follow the traditional “One China” policy. By contrast, President Trump once in office made a quick about-face. Not only did he reiterate his intention to honor the One China policy in his first phone call with Xi, his administration has made no moves to label China a currency manipulator or to impose punitive tariffs.