It’s safe to say that few people expected the first face-to-face meeting between President Trump and Xi Jinping to unfold this way.
Halfway through the Chinese president’s visit to Trump’s resort in Palm Beach, Fla., Trump announced to the world that he had ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for an apparent chemical attack by Bashar Assad’s regime.
“It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump said Thursday night at Mar-a-Lago.
Xi, for his part, has not commented publicly on the Syria strike.
While it’s likely to loom large over the talks, the strike isn’t the only difficult issue confronting the two presidents. From trade policy to North Korea, from Taiwan to the South China Sea, the list of possible topics for their talks was about as long as it is thorny.
This meeting had long promised to be a delicate dance between the leaders, whose relationship has had something of a rocky start.
For much of the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Trump placed China squarely in his rhetorical crosshairs, decrying the United States’ $300 billion-plus trade deficit with China and calling the country a currency manipulator.
“We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing,” Trump said during a campaign stop last year. “It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.”
And about a month after his election, Trump also upended decades of diplomatic policy by accepting a congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan — which China considers a breakaway territory.
Still, those initial frictions have settled somewhat lately.
In a telephone conversation in February, Trump reaffirmed his commitment to the long-held “One China” doctrine, an intentionally ambiguous U.S. position that asserts both China and Taiwan are part of One China. And anxieties about a trade war between the U.S. and China have as yet shown no indications of becoming reality.
A return to placid relations would seem to be welcome news for Xi, who has more than his country’s interests in mind.
There are also Xi’s own political ambitions. With his eye on a second five-year term, which is set to start this fall, Xi is working to shore up his political power at home — which would be complicated by friction in his talks with Trump.
NPR correspondents Anthony Kuhn and Rob Schmitz lay out how Xi also might use the meetings as a means to begin carving out a larger leadership role for China on the global stage. But first, Trump and Xi have some rather difficult topics to tackle. Here are three of the biggest — and here’s what’s at stake:
“North Korea clearly is a matter of urgent interest for the president and the administration as a whole,” a senior U.S. administration official told reporters this week.
It’s easy to see why.
The reclusive country fired a ballistic missile into the waters near Japan on Wednesday local time, in what NPR’s Elise Hu notes was its fourth attempted missile launch of the year.
Thus far, international bids to get North Korea to end its missile program have proved fruitless, and the Trump administration is pressing China to take a harder line.
“The policy of strategic patience has ended,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during his recent visit to South Korea. “We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, economic measures. All options are on the table.”
That statement is likely to carry even more weight given the U.S. missile strike in Syria.
Arguably, China is best positioned to pressure dictator Kim Jong Un’s regime, as its next-door neighbor and by far its most important trading partner. North Korea conducts an estimated 90 percent of its trade with China.
China has long been loath to exercise that leverage to its fullest for fear of destabilizing a nuclear neighbor — a nuclear neighbor with thousands of U.S. troops stationed just over the border in South Korea. So, while China has signed on to U.N. sanctions on North Korea, some argue that Beijing has been less than rigorous about enforcing them.
“As far as Beijing is concerned,” Anthony tells All Things Considered, “it wants the U.S. to provide North Korea with some sort of security guarantee in exchange for either freezing its nuclear programs or denuclearizing, as it has already promised to do.”
Trump has made his impatience apparent, however.
“China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t,” Trump told the Financial Times this week. “And if they do that will be very good for China, and if they don’t it won’t be good for anyone.”
Trump’s bellicose statements on the stump haven’t materialized in the form of tariffs or particularly punitive measures directed toward China, though it’s clear he hasn’t forgotten about that hefty trade deficit between the two countries.
“We have been treated unfairly and have made terrible deals, trade deals with China for many, many years. So that’s one of the things we’re going to be talking about,” Trump said Thursday en route to the meeting in Florida.
So it was something of a surprise, NPR’s Chris Arnold reports, when the U.S. Commerce Department quietly moved to begin reviewing China’s status as a “non-market economy.” That designation, Chris says, allows the U.S. to tax Chinese imports “if it believes that China is, for example, dumping steel into the U.S. at prices that are unnaturally low and that hurt U.S. industry.”
Experts say China isn’t likely to shake its NME status. But the move still flies in the face of campaign rhetoric that suggested U.S. trade policy would be trending in the opposite direction.
Couple that with Trump’s withdrawal earlier this year from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership — a move welcomed by China, which had been pointedly excluded from the agreement — and Xi might have incentive to extend an offer of his own.
“In an effort to forestall trade friction, Mr Xi could promise more Chinese investment in US infrastructure and manufacturing,” the Financial Times posits. “But while Chinese investment in the US more than tripled last year to $45 [billion], the vast majority came from private sector entrepreneurs.”
At any rate, a senior U.S. administration official made clear that Xi and Trump’s discussions won’t stray too far from economic matters: “The primary purpose of the meeting is to set a framework for discussions on trade and investment.”
As with trade, the Trump administration has at times sent mixed signals when addressing maritime disputes in the South China Sea, where China has been gradually increasing its presence.
The Obama administration pushed back against China’s territorial claims in the region, and Tillerson has said the U.S. opposes the country’s construction of an artificial island there. As The New York Times reports, the secretary of state has said the U.S. should “send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops. And second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
Yet Anthony Kuhn reports that even as Tillerson maintained his position on the South China Sea, he surprised observers during his visit to China by adopting Beijing’s language nearly verbatim when describing the U.S.-China relationship: “nonconflict, nonconfrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”
“Tillerson’s use of Beijing’s formula may leave the Trump administration open to criticism that either Tillerson bent over too far backward to placate his Chinese hosts or he failed to articulate the U.S. vision of the relationship, perhaps because it has yet to come up with a coherent policy toward China and Asia. Or both.”
As Xi and Trump embark on their negotiations, Charles Freeman, a former U.S. trade negotiator, offered Trump some advice:
“Listen. Just don’t speak first. Let the other side put its issues on the table and see what you like and what you don’t like,” Freeman tells NPR. “It may be difficult for this president to practice silence, but that’s probably the best advice I can give him or anybody else in dealing with the Chinese.”