Against Mr. Trump’s impulsiveness and his espousal of an America First agenda of isolationism and protectionism, Mr. Xi projects a steady hand as he tries to remake the global economic and political order and entice nations into Beijing’s orbit.
Chinese trade is undeniably a big draw for many countries. So is Mr. Xi’s promised, though perhaps quixotic, $1 trillion investment in his One Belt, One Road initiative, an ambitious network of trading routes and development projects — roads, ports, pipelines and the like from China to Africa and Europe — that seems also to have drawn Mr. Bannon’s admiration. Having long operated quietly in Russia’s shadow at the United Nations, the Chinese are also speaking out more forcefully and engaging more robustly across multiple regions, a trend that has accelerated under Mr. Trump.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump, unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama, who worked to expand American influence in Asia, has ceded significant ground to China, especially by withdrawing from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and thus allowing Beijing an opening to set trade rules in the region. The American president will share the world stage with Mr. Xi for the first time this week when both men address the annual United Nations General Assembly.
Can there be robust cooperation? In 2005, when President George W. Bush was in office, Robert Zoellick, then a deputy secretary of state, encouraged China to become a “responsible stakeholder” and help strengthen the Western-designed postwar international system from which it benefited. Yet today more officials and experts are putting China in the adversary category, or leaning toward doing so, not least because of Beijing’s decision to expand its military capability and project it further into the South China Sea.
Still, to anyone who steps back from the immediate conflicts over territory and trade, there is no alternative to cooperation on major challenges, even if interests aren’t always aligned. Mr. Trump is supposed to make his first presidential trip to Beijing in November, and Mr. Xi will certainly want to demonstrate that he can work with and manage the mercurial American president. The meeting is a natural forcing mechanism for getting some things done.
Here’s one thing that is not much talked about: counterterrorism. Mr. Trump worries about the Islamic State, Mr. Xi about Muslim Uighurs in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. Beijing could benefit from American intelligence about militants returning from the Middle East to Xinjiang; Washington would be interested in China’s help in persuading Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban.
On trade, there may be an opportunity for progress on a bilateral investment treaty, with American investment offered in exchange for broader access to the Chinese market for American companies. On intellectual property, now that China is putting energy into developing its own technology instead of just stealing America’s, the two could work together on stronger protections.
And then, of course, there is North Korea. Mr. Trump has insisted far more strongly than Mr. Obama that China, as the North’s main supplier of food and fuel, could single-handedly resolve the North Korea nuclear crisis if it wanted to. China can do a lot, and it did support the United States in passing tougher United Nations Security Council sanctions last week. But it has no interest in seeing North Korea collapse, and doubts remain about whether it could force the North to negotiate.
There is a template for cooperation, and while it involves an issue in which Mr. Trump has no interest, it provides a glimpse of a way forward. The issue is climate change. A combination of arduous negotiation by Secretary of State John Kerry and the Obama White House, plus China’s own horrible air pollution problems, brought Beijing around to signing the Paris accord and making a major commitment to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions. Self-interest and patient diplomacy: a combination that could work to the benefit of the entire world.
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