AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Trade talks between the U.S. and China have ended in Washington, D.C., without a deal. What happens next in the escalating trade war depends in part on someone who was not in Washington today, Chinese President Xi Jinping. With new tariffs in place today and the threat of more to come, and with the U.S. accusing him of backing out of earlier commitments, Xi faces a difficult choice. Does he make concessions to reach a truce in the trade war, or does he stand firm against President Trump and risk further damage to China's economy?
We're joined now by Dennis Wilder of Georgetown University. He was a China expert for the U.S. intelligence community until 2016. Welcome.
DENNIS WILDER: Thank you.
CHANG: So let's just lay out what's at stake here for Xi Jinping. In other words; what does he gain by standing up to Trump, and what does he risk?
WILDER: I think he walks a real tightrope on what is happening here. This is a big document; it's 150 pages in length. There are an awful lot of things that the Chinese have to do in order to get these tariffs lifted. And many of those things the United States wants cemented into law on the Chinese side.
For him to go to the National People's Congress and ask for these things - it's a sensitive year. One-hundred years ago, the Chinese student movement started in China, and it started because of concessions made to the West because of unfair treaties, from the Chinese point of view. He has to worry that if he takes such a big agreement to the National People's Congress to get this cemented into law, he's going to get blowback.
WILDER: He's not going to look like a strong leader. On the other hand, if he doesn't get this deal, and Trump really does follow through with his threats now to put tariffs of 25% on all Chinese goods coming into the United States, this can destabilize the Chinese economy. It can destroy confidence in the economy. It can lead to economic dislocations, job losses in China. Remember, this is the most important trading relationship China has.
CHANG: Right. So given - you know, even with all those pressures on Xi Jinping, China, you know, has a state-controlled media. Xi has concentrated a large amount of power in himself. How does all that shape his ability to negotiate with Trump, who, in comparison, has to work within the confines of a democracy?
WILDER: Well, I think that is a little bit of one of the misconceptions on the American side.
CHANG: What do you mean?
WILDER: I think people overestimate Xi's own position in the political system in China. Yes, he is incredibly powerful, and yes, he has a lot of authorities. But remember, he made a decision last year to abolish term limits.
WILDER: That was very controversial within the political elite in China.
CHANG: People compared him to Mao Zedong.
WILDER: Exactly. If he stumbles in these negotiations, then these critics will come back roaring at him, saying, you haven't been able to manage the U.S. government. Maybe you shouldn't be the long-term leader of China. Maybe we should be looking for those successors that you didn't appoint at the last party congress. So he runs some risk here because he, while powerful, really does have to deal with others within that political party elite. It's not the people of China that he has to worry about.
WILDER: It is those elite families around him who still have plenty of power within the Chinese system.
CHANG: He's powerful, but not invincible.
CHANG: As we know, Trump's negotiating style is pretty unpredictable. Like, you know, it's very public. He announced this latest round of tariffs in a tweet. How effective do you think Trump's style has been when dealing with China and Xi Jinping?
WILDER: I think he's really thrown them off balance, and they are now trying to figure out exactly how to deal with him. One of the answers is that the only deal they think is going to stick is the one that Trump himself makes with Xi Jinping. So I would predict this deal is not going to be made until those two men either talk or meet because Trump simply isn't the kind of leader who wants this deal signed off on by somebody lower-level. And they know from Hanoi and what happened in - particularly, in Singapore, that the Chinese, that if they get a deal with Trump, they get a deal; if they get a deal with somebody lower, they may not get the deal.
CHANG: That's Dennis Wilder of Georgetown University. Thanks so much for coming into the studio today.
WILDER: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.