“The Art of the Deal” appears to have edged out the “The Art of War” for now, as the presidents of the U.S. and China spoke of agreements reached at their summit at President Trump’s resort in Palm Beach, Fla., last week, including an apparent deal to cooperate in grappling with the North Korean nuclear issue.
“You and I, Mr. President, increased our mutual understanding and established a good working relationship,” President Xi Jinping told Trump, when Trump called Xi on Tuesday night, a follow-up to their meeting at Mar-a-Lago.
Xi added that the two sides had “reached important consensuses” on key issues, and that China “is willing to communicate and coordinate” on the North Korean issue.
“I think we had a very good chemistry together,” President Trump said of Xi at a press briefing Wednesday. “I think he wants to help us with North Korea.”
While neither side would say exactly what sort of deal was struck, it seemed to confirm observers’ predictions that both leaders went into the summit expecting to size each other up and see to what extent they could do business with each other.
“The way you’re going to make a good trade deal,” Trump says he told Xi, according to The Wall Street Journal, “is to help us with North Korea.” In an earlier tweet, Trump had threatened that the U.S. would resolve the North Korean issue by itself, if China refused to help.
“Both sides seem to have achieved some of the objectives they sought from each other’s concessions,” says Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at People’s University in Beijing.
Cheng says Xi is likely to have sought — and received — assurances from Trump that the U.S. would hold off on using military force against North Korea, giving tougher sanctions and diplomacy more time to work.
He adds that Beijing, meanwhile, has become “more proactive and bold” on the North Korea issue, for example, banning North Korean coal imports to China for the rest of the year.
Chinese customs statistics, though, indicate that trade between China and its neighbor increased 37 percent during the first quarter of this year, compared to the same period last year.
Therefore, Cheng says, China still has many points of leverage over North Korea, from finance and tourism to the many North Koreans working in China.
The Chinese are also aware that Trump sometimes bluffs, blunders and later backs down. That appears to have been the case when Trump threatened to upgrade relations with Taiwan as a way to get a better trade deal with Beijing.
But he quickly found out that China would not negotiate issues related to sovereignty such as the self-ruled island, and Trump later backed down in a call to Xi Jinping in February.
“China consistently decides its positions and policies on important international issues based on their own merits,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters on Thursday.
Another apparent dividend from the summit was that China on Wednesday abstained on a U.N. Security Council vote condemning Syria’s government for a chemical weapons attack last week.
China has aligned itself with Russia and, since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, vetoed six Security Council measures on it. This time, Russia alone vetoed the measure.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that “China made unremitting efforts to push the council to reach a consensus and speak with one voice,” and Beijing regrets, Lu added, that it did not happen.
A senior U.S. administration on Thursday attributed China’s help to the bond Trump and Xi forged at the summit. He denied that it was a quid-pro-quo exchange connected to any other issue.
China, meanwhile, was spared being branded a currency manipulator by the Trump administration. One of Trump’s foremost campaign pledges was to punish China early in his presidency for depressing the value of its currency in order to boost exports and maintain a trade surplus with the U.S.
That position is at odds with the facts, as China has been spending down its foreign reserves to prop up the value of the yuan since mid-2014.
Reversing his position just before the summit, Trump said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that China was no longer manipulating its currency, and that he realized that punishing China over this issue could cost the U.S. China’s cooperation on North Korea.
Of course, currency exchange rates are not the only trade frictions between Beijing and Washington. China’s lax protection of intellectual property, dumping of commodities such as steel, and U.S. companies’ access to the China market are also of concern.
Whether Chinese leverage on other issues, or naming the right price, might make these concerns go away, too, remains to be seen.