North Korea's latest missile test will likely be the top topic President Trump focuses on in his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday and Friday. But an even more important foreign policy issue is actually the U.S.-China relationship, which is crucial to the entire world.
The speed and pace of China's remarkable rise has been long apparent economically, but it's also increasingly clear geopolitically. That's especially true in Asia, where the country's aggressive maritime territorial assertions and military provocations have rattled neighboring nations and the U.S. alike.
Trump should reconfirm his support for our Asian allies and make it clear to Xi that the U.S. will live up to its decades-long commitments. Equally important, strengthening protocols on avoiding military miscalculations that could spark a crisis or even an armed conflict should be prioritized.
"The most important question bar none is how to prevent the increasing patterns of competition between the U.S. and China from emerging as a real Cold War or, heaven forbid, a hot war," Douglas Paal, director of the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told an editorial writer.
Trump should raise trade issues as well, and that should come as no surprise to Xi since they were an ongoing campaign issue. But Trump should do so understanding how inextricably linked the world's two largest economies are, and how counterproductive — or even calamitous — a trade war would be for not just the U.S. and China but for the global economy.
The recent rise of the yuan, however slow, is a step in the right direction, and takes some starch out of one of Trump's continual criticisms. He should also take note that while his administration has sounded a retreat on global trade pacts, China is pressing ahead, including an ambitious 16-nation trade pact that if enacted will fill the vacuum created when Trump officially exited the unfairly maligned Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The spiraling crisis regarding North Korea should make it a key issue to discuss, and Trump is right that Beijing must be more aggressive in pressing Pyongyang on nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. But Trump would be wise to calibrate his approach to be collaborative, not confrontational. China does not benefit from North Korean recklessness, especially since the U.S. is ramping up missile defenses in South Korea and maybe eventually in Japan, a move China considers a threat. Diplomacy is still the best, and perhaps only, route to solve this building crisis, and it will require a creative multilateral effort.
The summit was reportedly arranged in large part by Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law who has an increasingly diverse, and difficult, domestic and foreign policy portfolio. Kushner, a 36-year-old senior adviser, has no previous diplomatic experience. His foreign policy elevation effectively sidelines Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and is an unwise course for someone with ethical issues who did not face Senate confirmation. The legislative branch should require Trump to clarify who is shaping U.S. foreign policy.