BUENOS AIRES – Saturday evening dinner between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping featured a collision between two men convinced that they bring unique skills to the US-China trade confrontation.
The US president is a self-appointed negotiator, with a history of victories and defeats over a long career in real estate. His interlocutor is China's most trusted world leader since Mao Zedong, convinced that his destiny is to lead a historic national restoration.
At the annual summit of the Group of 20 Leaders, discussions on the global economy and climate change were the subject of anticipation by both leaders.
During a brief speech at the beginning of the meeting, Mr. Trump said that the two leaders and their advisers, sitting on either side of a long table flanked by Chinese and American flags, discuss a variety of topics.
"We will discuss trade. And I think that at some point, we will do something excellent for China and for the United States, "he said.
Xi responded with a reference to men's "personal friendship" and their responsibility for "world peace and prosperity".
Since President Richard Nixon met Mao in 1972, US-China relations are not so close to personalities, said Aaron Friedberg, a China expert at Princeton University.
"The two men considered themselves as" maximum leaders ", strong men defending the interests and honor of their nations," said Friedberg, former foreign policy advisor to Vice President Richard B. Cheney. "Neither of them wants to seem weak, which would seem to reduce the margin of compromise, but none wants to be held responsible for a complete breakdown of relations."
Trump and Xi are both sons of prominent fathers. Fred Trump was a wealthy real estate mogul in outlying New York, while Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of the founders of Communist China and had survived many purges to become a key figure. of China's economic openness.
But the similarities end there for the two men who will face each other around a table in the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt on Saturday night.
"They are two very different people, coming from different professional and cultural backgrounds and probably not understanding each other," sent an e-mail to Scott Kennedy, director of the project on Chinese business and political economy in China. Center for Strategic and International. Studies. "Their respective approaches" America First "and" China First "mean that they are inexorably linked and must find a way to deal with each other."
Since he became General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2012, Xi's got rid of China's traditional reluctance and talked about leading the "Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation". He provided funds to the Chinese army and asserted control of the South China Sea via an island building campaign.
Xi also chaired an increasingly aggressive campaign to steal US technology to fuel China's economic boom, according to the Trump administration.
"Xi is a cold-blooded calculator of China's interests – and his own interests," said Ryan Hass, China Affairs Officer for the National Security Council under the Barack Obama government. "This is not a leader who seems to be swayed by sentimentalism. He is always well prepared and rarely spontaneous.
Trump and Xi met in April 2017 in the president's Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, and in Beijing in November 2017. After the failure of negotiations conducted by their subordinates, Trump phoned Xi on the month last to reopen the dialogue.
The trade dispute, which has upset the financial markets and upset global supply chains, began this year when Trump imposed tariffs on a total of $ 253 billion worth of imported steel products. and consumer goods, including handbags, furniture and appliances. The Chinese authorities, caught off guard by the aggressive measures taken by the United States, have responded by imposing import taxes on US products such as soy, automobiles and liquefied natural gas.
The Trump administration complains that China is treating American companies unjustly in defiance of its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization. In March, US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer announced to China a 215-page report accusing him of conducting a massive campaign to acquire and steal advanced US technologies.
By generously supporting its public companies and by forcing US companies to give up their trade secrets in exchange for gaining access to the lucrative Chinese market, Beijing is looking to dominate the industries of the future, Lighthizer said.
Despite Trump's tariffs and the months of growing complaints in the US, China "has not fundamentally changed its unfair, unreasonable and market-distorting practices," said Lighthizer last month.
In recent weeks, multi-level officials from both governments have sought to develop an agreement to avoid further tariffs in the United States while reopening negotiations on a broader pact.
Some analysts hope the two men will agree to a ceasefire in the tariff war, but skepticism is deep as to the prospects for a lasting solution.
Trump and Xi will meet with growing concerns that trade conflicts are undermining the weakening global economy. Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, said Saturday that "trade tensions have begun to have a negative effect" and increase the risk of disappointment for growth.