Next week’s mini-summit between United States President Donald Trump and China’s head of state Xi Jinping might just rekindle their bromance and ease trade war tensions. Do not hold your breath.

Speculation is already rife that their face-to-face meeting at the Group of 20 gathering in Japan will defuse the year-long ticking time bomb and pave the way for a detailed peace deal.

Again, that could be wishful thinking.

“Negotiation outcomes are not often obtained through talks, but through fights,” an editorial in Global Times pointed out. “If desiring a good negotiation result, China must persist and not fear.

“As trade between China and the US is highly likely to continue, the two countries may eventually reach an agreement. But China will not be impatient or afraid of setbacks. China can never be daunted,” the English-language tabloid, which is published by the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, added.

So far, this war of economic attrition has resulted in tit-for-tat tariffs surrounding the broader dispute over technology and unfair trading practices.   

Last month, Washington increased duties to about 25% on Chinese imports worth US$200 billion. In response, Xi’s government hiked taxes on US products worth $60 billion.

Extra tariffs

As the war of words escalated between the world’s two largest economies, Trump threatened to wheel out extra tariffs on goods entering the States worth another $300 billion.

Behind the scenes, Beijing launched an ambitious package of stimulus measures to reignite a cooling economy.

In between, after months of painstaking negotiations, the trade talks collapsed with both sides blaming each other.

Trust is now as scarce as rare earths.

“More likely than not, the one-on-one meeting will end up being the start of a new phase in [talks] with the two leaders personally setting out their country’s respective bottom lines,” the leading English-language newspaper, China Daily, said in an editorial on Thursday.

Key to hammering out a deal that will stand the test of time is Washington’s insistence on “structural changes,” which go to the very heart of Beijing’s state-run capitalist model.

Indeed, that has become one red line the Communist Party administration has refused to cross.

It is unlikely to do so. Instead, Chinese analysts believe a fragile truce will probably emerge between the two economic superpowers.

Naval presence

“Sino-US relations won’t go back to the old days,” Song Guoyou, the director of Fudan University’s Center for Economic Diplomacy, said. “No matter who wins the [US presidential] election [in 2020], it will take a very long time for both sides to rebuild trust in the aftermath of the current trade war.”

Coupled with China’s rising naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region and, in particular, the South China Sea, Beijing and Washington appear to be on a collision course.    

Yan Xuetong, the distinguished professor and dean of the Institute of International Relations at the prestigious Tsinghua University, outlined future scenarios in The Age of Uneasy Peace.

“Contrary to what more alarmist voices have suggested, a bipolar US-Chinese world will not be a world on the brink of an apocalyptic war. This is in large part because China’s ambitions for the coming years are much narrower than many in the Western foreign policy establishment tend to assume,” he wrote.

“Rather than unseating the United States as the world’s premier superpower, Chinese foreign policy in the coming decade will largely focus on maintaining the conditions necessary for the country’s continued economic growth – a focus that will likely push leaders in Beijing to steer clear of open confrontation with the United States or its primary allies,” he continued.

“Instead, the coming bipolarity will be an era of uneasy peace between the two superpowers. Both sides will build up their militaries but remain careful to manage tensions before they boil over into outright conflict. And rather than vie for global supremacy through opposing alliances, Beijing and Washington will largely carry out their competition in the economic and technological realms,” Yan added.

By then, the Trump-Xi bromance will be a footnote in history.