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What conclusions, then, are we entitled to draw from the Mar-a-Lago summit and the wider outlook for Sino-US relations? The protagonists, and perhaps much of the rest of the world, are probably glad that this initial encounter has now taken place. Summitry for the sake of it is usually of little value, but that in Mar-a-Lago was an exception. China and the United States must talk. Their principals, at various levels, must meet often. Second, the China-US relationship is both broad and deep, extending across a range of vectors. This is both a good and a bad thing. Conceptually, it allows cooperation to continue in one area even if there are conflicts in another. But it also makes for complexity and exposes the entire enterprise to “cascade risk” — the danger that the poor management and miscalculation of one or more sensitive issues will bring the entire house down. Third, the stakes in the US-China relationship are almost cosmic in scale. Beijing and Washington cannot manage the rest of the world, whose leading representatives (and lesser lights) rightly demand their own seats in the highest councils. But the rest of the world will fare very badly if the US and China cannot manage their own affairs successfully.

There is a final, somewhat bigger point. It concerns the nature and distribution of global power and thus of values, the handmaiden of power in every era. We live in an age in which almost every aspect of the post-Second World War order is either under strain or has already succumbed to new forces. For example, it is the developing not the developed world that now produces the largest share of global GDP. It is the developing world that accounts for by far the largest share of the world’s population, including its youngest cohorts. The international institutions set up after the Second World War, most of them under US leadership, are struggling to cope with this shift in the centre of gravity. Challengers are emerging to the World Bank and the IMF in the form of the BRICS Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, both them free of Washington’s influence. Though easy to exaggerate, confidence in liberal democracy and free market economics has been waning, even in their traditional strongholds of the United States and Western Europe. The triumph of populist candidates at the polls is a symptom of this phenomenon, if a complex and occasionally ambiguous one.

China has much to do with this changing order. Absent a severe crisis, the size of its economy will soon exceed that of the United States. Its defence spending and military capacity still falls far short of the United States, but both are increasing fast enough that Beijing will soon be able to deny US access to the expansive air space and ocean territories it claims as its own. Formidable obstacles stand in the way of China’s remarkable global ascent. They include, very close to home, the risk that the crisis over North Korea will reconfigure the local landscape in an unfavourable manner for Beijing. For this reason, Xi will not readily sign up to a deal with the United States that weakens the regime in Pyongyang, even though he is as frustrated as Trump by Kim Jong-un’s behaviour. For Xi, the existence of North Korea is a buffer against even greater uncertainties.

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