Xi and Trump: A beginner’s guide to translating Chinese diplomatic speak

Xi and Trump: A beginner’s guide to translating Chinese diplomatic speak

President Donald Trump

President Donald Trump will meet Saturday with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires. | Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images

South China Morning Post

Language used in statements issued after the two leaders meet will offer clues as to the temperature in the room — so what does it all mean?

This story is being published by POLITICO as part of a content partnership with the South China Morning Post. It originally appeared on scmp.com on Dec. 1, 2018.

With so much at stake, all eyes will be on a crucial meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump in Buenos Aires on Saturday.

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But with no joint press conference expected after the talks, gauging how they went will be a matter of interpreting the diplomatic language used in any statements released by the two sides.

So what do these frequently used terms actually mean? From “stern representations” to the difference between a “candid” and “thorough” exchange of views, here’s our guide to diplomatic speak.

Cordial and friendly talks

A meeting has gone smoothly if talks are described as “cordial and friendly” — it is one of the best-case scenarios and could mean a deal has been reached, or at least that a turnaround is possible.

One example is its use to describe a change in China’s relations with the Philippines. Ties had deteriorated over the South China Sea when former Philippine president Benigno Aquino took the matter to an international tribunal in The Hague, which rejected Beijing’s vast claims to the resource-rich waterway. Beijing was furious and suspended high-level talks with Manila. But the situation changed when Rodrigo Duterte became Philippine president and began pursuing friendlier ties with China. A joint statement issued after Duterte met Xi during his first trip to Beijing in 2016 said their talks were held in a “friendly” atmosphere — suggesting efforts towards a rapprochement from both sides. China went on to make an investment pledge to the Philippines following the talks.

Candid exchange of views

It is not often that talks between two state leaders can be considered “friendly,” and on many occasions they are instead described as “candid and frank.” This generally means both sides have expressed their views, but that they did not agree on these views and neither side would budge.

The term is often used when Chinese officials discuss issues such as human rights and the South China Sea. In November, Politburo member Yang Jiechi said the China-U.S. diplomatic and security dialogue had been “candid, constructive and productive” — indicating that the two sides would still engage in talks but remained divided on issues such as trade, the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Another example is the joint statement released when Vietnamese party chief Nguyen Phu Trong visited China in 2011. It stressed that the South China Sea dispute should be dealt with through negotiation, but said both sides had a “candid exchange of views over maritime issues” — suggesting it would not be resolved.

Thorough exchange of views

When there is a “thorough exchange” it also means both sides expressed their views without agreeing, but that it may have turned into a heated debate or even an argument.

A statement released in May after trade talks between Vice-Premier Liu He and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the two sides had a “thorough exchange of views” about expanding U.S. imports to China, bilateral service trade and investment, protecting intellectual property rights and tariffs.

Improved understanding

If there is “improved understanding” there is still no consensus or agreement, but both sides have a better idea of the other, or they may have even narrowed some differences. The statement that followed the six-party North Korea nuclear talks in Beijing in 2004 said the meeting had “improved understanding” about the stance of all nations involved but that they still had differences. Last year, after a meeting between Xi and Trump at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the talks had helped the two leaders “improve mutual understanding.”

Productive and constructive discussion

This is a relatively polite way of saying the two sides agree to disagree. It means both sides have shown a willingness to resolve their issues by sitting down at the negotiating table. The China-U.S. economic dialogue held in July last year was described as “innovative, pragmatic and constructive” by the Chinese foreign ministry, which said they had agreed to resolve their disputes through dialogue and cooperation. But the U.S. take was quite the opposite, and the talks were later shelved by the Trump administration amid concerns over how effective they could be in resolving trade disputes.

Reach some consensus

If talks end with the parties reaching “some consensus” it means both sides have agreed on some matters, but they could not overcome their overall differences.

Stern representations

When “stern representations” are made, it means a diplomatic protest has been lodged and usually implies that China may take action to protect its interests. The Chinese foreign ministry has often used this term as its confrontation with the United States escalates. In 2000, then deputy foreign minister Yang made “stern representations” to Washington after the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. The latest “stern representations” came on Friday, after a U.S. warship sailed through waters around the contested Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The Chinese navy sent vessels to monitor the U.S. ship.

Combination of diplomatic terms

Discussions between state leaders often cover a wide range of topics, so the statements released afterwards can include a combination of terms. While there was a “thorough exchange of views” during trade talks between Liu and Mnuchin in May, for example, they were also described as “candid, efficient and constructive”, and the two sides “reached some consensus”. That statement was read as a sign that a trade war could be averted because both China and the U.S. had signaled they would not go ahead with threatened import tariffs. But come July 6, the tariffs began.

Pang Zhongying, an international relations professor at Ocean University of China, said the statement did provide some positive momentum at the time. “But soon after that China believed the U.S. was going back on its promise — and somehow, China also miscalculated the situation,” Pang said.

He said if statements following the Xi-Trump meeting in Argentina used language like “constructive dialogue” and “thorough exchange of views” it could mean the two sides were trying to contain the trade tensions.

“Both sides may try to resolve this confrontation through negotiations [during the Xi-Trump meeting], though they haven’t got long to do it,” Pang said. “But still, they might try to send a positive signal that they will try to stop tensions from escalating.”

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