Chinese want to make sure Xi dodges 'embarrassments' with the impulsive Donald Trump

Trump, Xi face off at Mar-a-Lago

When Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump convene in Palm Beach, Florida, this week, don't expect any intimate, behind-the-scenes moments.

While there's no shortage of weighty issues to occupy the two leaders during their first-ever meeting April 6-7, public attention has shifted more toward diplomatic etiquette — such as Trump's handshake. And Xi's handlers are expected to restrict the number of public appearances in order to avoid potential snags and safeguard against Trump's impulsive nature, strategists said.

The former reality television star's body language has been closely analyzed after he held Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's hand for around 19 seconds, causing the Japanese leader to grit his teeth and roll his eyes. He also appeared to refuse German Chancellor Angela Merkel's hand during her visit to the Oval office last month.

To prevent any situation that could slight Xi, the Chinese will have made clear demands about how physical interactions should take place during the two-day visit, said Chong Ja Ian, an assistant professor at National University of Singapore.

Mar-a-Lago Resort
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

Indeed, the mainland delegation will have studied Trump's behavior with other leaders extensively and planned accordingly, said William Heidlage, research director at business advisory firm BowerGroupAsia. "I expect a relatively cool meeting in terms of outward appearances as Xi's people trade in any warm and fuzzy moments in exchange for confidence that their boss will be treated with respect."

Trump will hold talks with Xi at the Republican's Mar-a-Lago retreat as both countries attempt to smooth a relationship that has grown more prickly since Trump took office. From openly questioning the "One China" policy to pressing Beijing on North Korea, the president has shown resistance to protocol when it comes to dealing with the world's second-largest economy.

"The Chinese government is well aware that Trump might act unpredictably and will take steps to minimize the opportunity for any embarrassments," said Heidlage. "The summit will be a relatively private affair, with only a few well-planned moments open to the press."

The selection of Mar-a-Lago over the White House paves the way for an informal meeting for the duo to get to know each other — reminiscent of the first meeting between Xi and former President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands estate in Palm Springs, California.

China wants stability, access and influence: Expert

But Xi didn't settle on Mar-a-Lago for its sprawling lawns.

"Beijing has pushed the Mar-a-Lago option over a more formal affair at the White House. This suggests that the Chinese side want to reduce the scope for protocol blunders overshadowing the event," said Hugo Brennan, Asia analyst at Maplecroft.

The exchange of gifts, a common practice in bilateral meetings and one of particular importance in Chinese culture, will likely be another area of public scrutiny. And the symbolism behind each gift will be more important than the actual item itself, analysts said.

Having Xi not stay at Mar-a-Lago is indicative of China's desire not to be seen to be subject to U.S. demands, so any gift giving is likely to follow a similar tone.
Chong Ja Ian
assistant professor, National University of Singapore

"Any gifts from the Chinese side will probably be something that emphasizes U.S.-China cooperation, but also Chinese resolve. Given the tone of the Trump administration, it is possible that the U.S. side will select something that underscores American strength in some way," said Chong.

While gift-giving isn't mandatory, it's seen as an integral step for Trump and Xi to establish a personal rapport with each other.

"Expect personal gifts designed to please the man, rather than abstract offerings seeking to make a political statement a la Obama's bench," said Brennan, referring to the custom-designed park bench that the former president offered Xi in 2013.

When Abe arrived in Palm Beach for a similar summit in February, Trump paid for his Mar-a-Lago stay as a gift. But that won't be happening this time around since Xi will be residing at the nearby Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa instead.

"Having Xi not stay at Mar-a-Lago is indicative of China's desire not to be seen to be subject to U.S. demands, so any gift-giving is likely to follow a similar tone," Chong noted.

There's one more key difference between Abe's and Xi's stay.

Trump and the Japanese prime minister spent around four hours hitting the links at Trump National Golf Club, with the president saying golf was a better way to get to know someone than having lunch.

But golf diplomacy won't work with Xi, who has shut down golf courses in his home country and banned members of the ruling Communist Party from the sport as part of an anti-graft crackdown.

Correction: Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump are meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, this week. An earlier version misstated the location.