BEIJING — After years of tough talk, President Trump finally had his chance to shape U.S.-China ties.
His Thursday/Friday meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida was billed by both sides as a simple “get-to-know-you” for Trump and Xi. It was also a get-to-know-you for the rest of us, a first glimpse into how the presidents and their teams will manage what may be the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Though the mostly private meetings were overshadowed by the U.S. strike on a Syrian airfield, their brief interactions and statements provided some key clues about what comes next in U.S.-China ties. Here are six takeaways:
1. The U.S. may go its own way on North Korea
Trump has repeatedly complained that China is not doing enough to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program, but he already appears close to giving up on the idea of pushing Beijing to push Pyongyang. China simply won’t do anything that might undermine or destabilize the regime in Pyongyang, experts say, and Trump may be realizing this.
Instead, the U.S. administration seems to be preparing to go its own way. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that while the two sides agreed to work with each other and with the international community to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, they were focused entirely on previous commitments rather than any kind of new “package arrangement.”
More ominously, Tillerson said Trump had told Xi: “We would be happy to work with them, but we understand it creates unique problems for them and challenges and that we would be, and are, prepared to chart our own course if this is something China is just unable to coordinate with us.”
Whether that means stronger sanctions on Chinese companies doing business with North Korea, further efforts to improve missile defenses in South Korea and Japan, or even unilateral military action remains to be seen. But a senior administration official said this week “the clock is very, very quickly running out.” Trump’s missile strike on Syria may have made that warning a little more real.
2. Trump did not get much on trade — yet
Reducing the U.S. trade deficit with China is at the top of Trump’s agenda, and China now acknowledges the need for a “more balanced trade environment,” according to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Experts had predicted Xi would bring a package of promises and ideas to cut the deficit, but neither side appears ready yet to stake out detailed positions or air specific ideas in public. Nevertheless, the U.S. administration said there was now a sense of urgency and an expectation of action, with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross touting a 100-day plan to improve trade ties and boost cooperation as the “most significant” takeaway from the meeting.
“Normally, trade discussions, especially between China and ourselves, are denominated in multiple years,” Ross said. “This was denominated in the first instance in 100 days with hopefully way stations of accomplishment along the way. Given the range of issues and the magnitude, that may be ambitious, but it's a very big sea change in the pace of discussions.”
Mnuchin added: “We focused on the desire to have very specific action items both in the short term for the next time we get together, as well as what the goals are over the year.”
In other words, watch this space.
3. Nobody wants to talk about the environment
The United States and China produce the most carbon emissions of any countries, and climate change was a key point of cooperation under the Obama administration. Under Trump? Not so much.
“That was not a major part of the discussion, nor do I recall the Chinese specifically raising it,” Ross told reporters.
“We think it is a missed opportunity that the most pressing global problem of our time was not on the agenda of the most important bilateral relationship in the world,” said Li Shuo, a climate energy campaigner at Greenpeace China.
“There is no real solution to this issue without progressive actions from both the United States and China.”
4. ...Nor does either government want to talk about human rights
A Pew Research survey issued earlier this week showed that 79 percent of Americans believe China’s human-rights policies are a very serious or somewhat serious problem. Yet neither Trump or Xi commented publicly on the issue.
In remarks to the press, Tillerson said that in the meetings Trump had “noted the importance of protecting human rights and other values deeply held by Americans.”
Asked to elaborate, Tillerson was vague: “I don’t think you have to have a separate conversation, somehow separate our core values around human rights from our economic discussions, our military-to-military discussions, or our foreign-policy discussions,” he said.
“They’re really embedded in every discussion, that that is really what guides much of our view around how we're going to work together.”
Human-rights advocates are not sold. “There is no such thing as ‘embedding’ human rights — either you raise human rights or you don’t,” said Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia director for Amnesty International.
“It looks like the Trump administration is determined to turn its back on human-rights diplomacy.”
5. Old wine, new bottles
The two governments have talked about establishing a “new high-level framework” for negotiations, but they’re basically repackaging the existing process.
The U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue sounds similar to the previous Security and Economic Dialogue, although two elements have been promoted in importance to become “pillars” of the talks in their own right: a law enforcement and cybersecurity dialogue; and a social and cultural issues dialogue. That may be more about optics than any massive change in priorities: The Obama administration pushed hard on cyber issues and believed it made some progress, for example, while China has long been pressing for more cooperation on extradition of fugitives suspected of corruption.
On the South China Sea and other maritime issues, the song also remained the same, with the two sides exchanging “candid discussions” without any sign of progress. “President Trump noted the importance of adherence to international norms in the East and South China Seas and to previous statements on non-militarization,” Tillerson said.
6. China policy is now a (Kushner) family affair
The defining image of the summit will be Xi and his wife being serenaded by the Kushner kids — fitting, because the Kushner family seems to be running the show.
Over the last few months, one of the most striking Trump storylines has been the emergence of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a key player in China policy, with Kushner’s wife Ivanka Trump also playing a role.
During the campaign and the early days of the transition, Trump’s China policy was led by a clutch of conservative, advisors who, among other things, helped broker his Dec. 2 call with Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan. Since then, however, Kushner has been more active, reportedly urging his father-in-law to walk back his comments on Taiwan so as to work with Beijing.
Ivanka has also played her part, wooing the Chinese by appearing at a lunar New Year party at the Chinese embassy in Washington in February, along with her daughter Arabella, who has studied Mandarin and performed for the Chinese president on Friday.