WASHINGTON — President Trump faces the most serious test to date of his “America First” foreign policy this week as he hosts Chinese President Xi Jinping for a summit that will be largely defined by escalating tensions with North Korea. For the Chinese leader, the talks are no less fraught, as he hopes to prove that he can manage relations with his unpredictable new counterpart in the Oval Office.
The two men will have dinner on Thursday and then hold what officials on both sides have described as informal, get-to-know-you meetings on Friday at Trump’s luxury Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where the U.S. president hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in February.
“They want to build up the type of personal rapport and working relationship that we’ll be able to count on in times of opportunity, but also in times of crisis,” Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton told reporters on Wednesday. “We’ll hope that we don’t have any crises, but we need to have that relationship.”
A U.S. official told Yahoo News that the Chinese initially had misgivings about going to Mar-a-Lago after seeing paparazzi-style photos of Abe and Trump taken by some of the club’s members on social media. But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing that the decision to hold the talks at the oceanside resort “shows the importance attached by the U.S. to this meeting. The Chinese side respects the arrangement by the U.S.”
Trump and Xi will discuss North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, disputes over the bilateral trade and investment relationship, and tensions over Beijing’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, where it has built an archipelago of artificial islands. Xi is likely to seek fresh reassurance that Trump will not deviate from the traditional U.S. policy toward Taiwan, in which Washington professes to believe that the island is a province that will reunify with the mainland in “One China” governed by Beijing. It is less clear whether issues like climate change and the Iran nuclear deal, both of which Xi worked on with former President Barack Obama, will come up. And if Trump raises the issue of Chinese human rights abuses, senior U.S. officials say, he will do so in private, a welcome relief to his guest.
Unlike Abe’s visit, this will not include golf. Not only does soccer-fan Xi not play what past Chinese Communist leaders have scorned as the “game for millionaires,” but he prohibited party members from playing it and shut down scores of golf courses as part of an anticorruption crackdown. Beijing has lifted the ban, as long as members use their own money — essentially putting the sport out of reach for modestly paid public officials. But officials from both countries emphasize the casual nature of the meeting, which recalls Obama hosting Xi at the Sunnylands resort in California.
“Typically for summits of this stature, you need at least two months to negotiate all of the details, create an exhaustive list of outcomes, agree on joint statements … this is a far different kind of summit,” explained Meredith Sumpter, who watches China for the Eurasia Group. “It’s happening very early in the Trump administration, and rather than trying to achieve concrete outcomes, this is more about trying to establish a new relationship, a new framework for a bilateral relationship.”
While officials have put a premium on the personal aspects of what is arguably the world’s most important diplomatic relationship, weighty questions of policy are casting a long shadow over the meeting — none more ominous than North Korea.
Over the past few months, the Trump administration has escalated rhetoric aimed at the secretive regime in Pyongyang and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. On Tuesday, a senior White House official declared that, when it comes to diplomatic efforts to resolve that crisis, “the clock has now run out, and all options are on the table for us.” That language is typically associated with consideration of military action. Barely an hour later, North Korea fired a ballistic missile that landed in the waters off South Korea’s east coast. That, in turn, drew an unusually terse written statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile,” he said. “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”
In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Trump warned that “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.”
China is the key to North Korea policy because it’s the smaller country’s patron, North Korea’s source of food and fuel, and some of its midsized banks have allegedly helped the regime in Pyongyang get around international economic sanctions. Beijing doesn’t want North Korea to collapse, potentially sending refugees streaming into China, to say nothing of raising doubts about the security of the country’s nuclear weapons. It also doesn’t want North and South Korea to reunite, fearing that the result would be a U.S.-aligned country on its border. And it does not want U.S. military action in its backyard that could destabilize the region.
While North Korea’s missile launch on Tuesday kept the issue at the top of the agenda at Mar-a-Lago, Sumpter predicted that “this is not going to overcome the summit between these two presidents.”
That’s largely because Trump’s grievance-packed campaign speeches included repeated attacks on China as an economic predator that has sucked manufacturing jobs out of the United State. He floated imposing a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods and more recently signed an executive action commissioning a 90-day study of U.S. trade deficits, including the one with China.
“The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits … and job losses,” Trump tweeted on March 30.
Meanwhile, Xi will try to show to the world that he can manage the bilateral relationship.
“He’ll look to try to shape President Trump’s thinking on U.S.-China relations, on economic issues, and on North Korea,” said Sumpter, who served as a senior diplomat in Beijing. Xi will “try to move him away from notions of any sort of U.S.-China trade war,” she said.
It’s not clear whether the two leaders will bond or clash over their core political visions, which sound a bit alike: Trump has vowed to “Make America Great Again,” while Xi’s agenda calls for “the great revival of the Chinese nation.”
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