Ahead of Thursday’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Trump administration is engaged in a relatively conventional process involving interagency teams debating the messaging, policies and priorities for the U.S.-China relationship. But separate and above that operation sits a key channel for high-level interactions between the White House and Chinese leadership, run by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
The Kushner channel was established shortly after the election with the help of former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. In a series of meetings with top Chinese officials, Kushner and other Trump aides set the tone and broad agenda for the coming summit, well before the current policy process began. When Trump meets with Xi at Mar-a-Lago, the leaders could codify those early discussions, with huge implications for the United States, China and the Asia-Pacific region.
Kushner’s goal, according to White House and transition officials, is to broaden and improve the relationship, despite several persistent challenges. That drive runs counter to the views of other top officials who want to confront Beijing on various issues, as Trump promised during the campaign.
In mid-November, Kissinger met Kushner, national security adviser designate Michael Flynn and the president-elect at Trump Tower. Trump asked Kissinger to travel to Beijing and deliver a verbal message to Xi saying that everything was on the table in terms of bilateral cooperation. Kissinger met Xi in Beijing on Dec. 2, and Xi sent back a private reply conveying China’s wish to set up an early meeting of the two presidents.
That same day, Trump took a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, prompting a rebuke from the Chinese foreign ministry. But despite public tensions, private wooing between the two sides continued. Kissinger met with top Trump aides, including Kushner, on Dec. 6 and encouraged them to meet with Chinese state councilor Yang Jiechi. Yang and Ambassador Cui Tiankai came to Trump Tower for two meetings with top Trump officials Dec. 9 and Dec. 10, hosted in Kushner’s office.
In the meetings, Yang laid out a list of Chinese requests. China wants the Trump administration to adopt its concept of “a new model of great power relations,” Xi’s proposal to avoid conflict and focus on cooperation. China also wants Trump to endorse Xi’s signature “One Belt, One Road” initiative, China’s massive regional infrastructure and development project. China also seeks U.S. noninterference in issues it considers core interests, including Taiwan, Tibet and its internal affairs.
In exchange, the Chinese are prepared to offer as-yet-unspecified investment proposals to help advance Trump’s domestic agenda of creating jobs. Kushner and Cui have kept in close communication and the Chinese leadership has come to rely on the Kushner channel, which was used to help arrange the coming summit.
Kushner separately met with the leader of the Anbang Insurance Group in mid-November, as his family’s company pursued a real estate investment from the Chinese company. Those negotiations were put on hold last week amid criticism about a potential conflict of interest.
Inside the administration, there’s concern Kushner is too eager to warm relations with China. He is seen as allied in that effort with other top officials, including economic adviser Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Senior officials who want to pursue a tougher, more aggressive China approach include chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro, policy adviser Stephen Miller and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
One White House official said that Kushner is not reflexively pro-China and is keenly aware that Trump made confronting China on security and trade a pillar of his campaign.
“Jared’s view on China is that everything is negotiable; he as a real estate guy thinks there are win-win solutions for everything,” the official said. “He’s also a politically savvy guy and he knows that a lot of these things affect his father-in-law’s political standing.”
Some warming of the relationship is already evident. Kushner was one of many aides who persuaded Trump to back down and reaffirm his commitment to the one-China policy in his February phone call with Xi. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to mimic Chinese talking points after meeting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing in March.
Observers following the summit will focus on what is sure to be tough language from the president on some specific issues. On North Korea and the South China Sea, the administration is projecting a traditional hawkish Republican security policy. On trade, Trump seems to be sticking to a nationalist America-first economic agenda.
But if Trump also endorses China’s model for the relationship, its regional expansion and by omission its internal repression, that will not only signal a new era for the relationship but also show that Kushner is the most important figure in U.S.-China relations.
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