The Cable

Mr. Xi Goes to Mar-a-Lago

The meeting between two presidents will likely focus on three things: trade, North Korea, and making a good first impression.

little baby xi

President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will have their first face-to-face meeting in Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach residence, on Thursday and Friday, the biggest test yet of how the world’s most important bilateral relationship will evolve at a time of seismic shifts in the global landscape.

The two have already clashed over most aspects of the U.S.-China relationship, with spats over Taiwan, the “One China” policy, North Korea, the South China Sea, and trade disputes, among other points of discord. Both come to the meeting with pressing domestic political baggage: Trump is reeling from the health care debacle, historically-low approval ratings, and multiple investigations into his administration’s ties to Russia; Xi still has to navigate the politically-fraught 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress later this year.

In a twist, and unlike previous meetings between U.S. leaders and Xi or his predecessor Hu Jintao, the relative positions of the two countries are almost reversed, at least rhetorically. Washington used to lecture China on the need to uphold the global order, play by the rules, and take action on big transnational problems like climate change. Since Trump’s election, though, Beijing has cast itself, at least rhetorically, as the defender of the existing international order, including free trade, and has willingly grabbed global leadership in the fight against global warming that the Trump administration has abdicated.

With the Trump administration still groping its way toward a coherent China policy, the two will likely try to keep the discussion at the “30,000-foot level,” said Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said it is her understanding that some people in the Trump administration who have been talking to the Chinese have been talking about the next 40-plus years in the bilateral relationship.

“China likes that kind of conversation,” Glaser said. “It’s the conversation of principle, of general understanding that we should not have confrontation.”

But there are two issues that can’t be waved away: trade and North Korea.

What to do about Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program was already near the top of the agenda for the summit, but in case there were any doubts, North Korea made sure to gatecrash the summit, launching another medium-range ballistic missile just ahead of Xi’s visit.

But the Trump administration has sent contradictory signals regarding China and the North Korean threat. Trump told the Financial Times in an interview published on Sunday that the United States would deal with North Korea “alone,” spurning Chinese help. But on Tuesday, administration officials said “We would like to work on North Korea together. There’s an opportunity.” Later, that official added, “all options are on the table for us.” “Everyone’s acknowledged China’s going to have a big role to play” in dealing with North Korea, Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said in a call ahead of the visit on Wednesday, who added the United States will be looking to do more on North Korea in the future.

The Trump administration is still reviewing North Korean policy, and is “still primarily focused on getting the Chinese to agree to increased sanctions,” or at least to close existing loopholes that would impact, for example, smaller Chinese banks, said Michael Swaine, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. China has shown some willingness to abide tougher U.N. sanctions on its client state, and that would offer a way for Beijing to forestall rash action from Washington in the meantime.

“I think Xi Jinping would be quite willing to try to strengthen the sanctions regime,” Swaine said.

One reason for that: There’s still so much more China could do. A U.N. report identified front companies in China that help Pyongyang evade some of the financial restrictions and fund its weapons program. And even after China agreed to limit imports of North Korean coal, it bought a bunch anyway. At any rate, an agreement on North Korea “would take months and months of follow up,” which would see Xi through the party congress, Glaser noted.

The other big item on the agenda: trade. Trump has since the campaign railed against what he calls unfair trade from China, and told the FT, we cannot continue to trade if we are going to have an unfair deal like we have right now. This is an unfair deal.” (It’s unclear what “trade deal” with China the president might be referring to.) A senior White House official on Tuesday stressed that “bilateral trade investment should be mutually beneficial,” and that the two sides have “significant trade and economic issues to discuss.”

Since the turn of the century, China has boosted its exports partly by exploiting cheap labor, but also with a variety of questionable tactics. Years ago, it kept its currency cheap to make exports more competitive, though it now does the opposite. Beijing also subsidizes manufacturing firms to allow them to dump products from solar panels to steel plate at below-market prices.

Even Democratic lawmakers are wondering if Trump will follow through on his tough campaign-trail rhetoric on trade when he meets with Xi. Sen. Bob Casey (D.-Penn.) and 11 other Democratic senators urged the president in a letter Wednesday to stick up for American workers they say have been harmed by Chinese practices.

So far, China has made some encouraging noises. Chinese officials have already said they’ll work with the Trump administration to decrease China’s trade surplus. (China has spent years trying to rebalance its economy away from a reliance on exports to more domestic consumption, so that dovetails with Beijing’s own plans.) China could make it easier for foreign companies to do business in China, or send some excess Chinese capital to the United States for investment, perhaps creating jobs.

On trade, “you’ll get a lot of positive talk … that will make it sound like something is being done,” Swaine said.

But don’t hold your breath for many concrete breakthroughs. The Trump administration’s hydra-headed trade team isn’t fully in place yet, and the administration’s review of “unfair” trading practices by other countries, including China, will take months to complete.

“I expect much more concrete action on North Korea,” said Jeremy Haft, a China expert at Georgetown University,

Unlike previous U.S.-China summits, there’s one confrontation that will almost certainly be glossed over in the conversations between Trump and Xi: human rights. Human rights “can’t help but come up,” Thornton said. That’s somewhat different from the stance taken by previous U.S. administrations, which sought to press Beijing on human rights within the broader context of a tricky two-way relationship. But passing assurances aside in briefing calls aside, the Trump administration has made clear that it has little interest in promoting human rights, and certainly is unlikely to allow it to become a sticking point as it charts a new relationship with Beijing.

Trump has long praised the brutal Chinese repression in Tiananmen Square in 1989, has been silent during Russian crackdowns on peaceful protesters, warmly embraced Egyptian strongman Abdel Fatah el-Sisi this week, allegedly applauds Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte’s death squads, and has kind words for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has thrown thousands into jail after a failed coup last summer.   

FP’s David Francis contributed to this piece.

Photo credit: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

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