BEIJING — Hours after the official announcement that he will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time this week in Florida, President Trump took to Twitter to reassure supporters that he would stand up for their interests.
“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,” he tweeted Thursday evening. “American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives.”
The U.S. leader also signed two executive actions Friday to launch reviews of U.S. trade policy that could serve as preludes to more stringent White House decisions on tariffs and trade agreements.
But in contrast to Trump’s tough talk on trade, the tone at a Chinese Foreign Ministry news conference was conciliatory, playing down differences and talking up the chance to take the relationship to a “new level” in a “new era.”
Experts say the Chinese leader is likely to bring to the April 6-7 meeting at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort a package of pledges designed to give the U.S. president some “tweetable” promises to present as victories.
“If we can think creatively and take active steps, there is indeed a lot we can do on economics and trade,” Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang said. “Such cooperation will deliver win-win outcomes for both sides.”
So is Trump going to get what he wants from China? Will the first meeting between the unscripted, unpredictable U.S. president and the much more formal Chinese leader build on the “cordial” telephone conversation they apparently enjoyed in February and restore some stability to the U.S.-China relationship?
The short-term answer might be yes. But in the longer term: Perhaps not.
“This meeting seeks to establish a personal connection, allow both to take the measure of the other, and allow each to put down important markers on priorities,” said Evan Medeiros, who heads the Eurasia Group’s coverage of the Asia-Pacific and was the National Security Council’s Asia director in the Obama administration.
“That said, no one should be under the illusion this will create a personal bond that overrides different worldviews and national interests. The Chinese like to say that relationships matter, but their interests always matter far more,” he said.
The two countries have been here before: Xi came to the United States soon after taking office for what was billed as a “shirt-sleeves summit” with President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands estate in California in 2013.
But the spin about a “uniquely informal atmosphere” didn’t quite match the reality, with conversations held through interpreters still mostly predictable and often stilted.
Then, Xi declined to stay at Sunnylands, choosing a nearby hotel instead for fear of being bugged. This time, Florida police say, he won’t be staying at Mar-a-Lago, either, preferring the Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa in Manalapan, according to the Palm Beach Post.
And it remains to be seen whether Trump and Xi will actually achieve a rapport.
“Xi likes to share his views in long 15- to 20-minute chunks that are challenging even for the most patient leaders,” Medeiros observed, noting the two men’s “distinct personalities.”
Still, Shen Dingli, a Sino-U.S. relations expert at Shanghai’s Fudan University, is confident the meeting will go well. Xi’s trip to the United States is intended “to give Trump a victory,” he said.
“What does Trump want? He wants two things — buy more American products and hire more American people,” he said.
So if Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly pledged in February to invest $150 billion and create 700,000 American jobs, Xi can pledge $250 billion and 1.5 million jobs, he said.
“Trump’s goals are the most basic ones and the easiest to meet,” he said. “We can definitely let him have that victory.”
Sun Zhe, an expert on U.S.-
China relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the long trip shows Xi’s “sincerity,” adding that he expects Xi to bring a “huge check” to buy American agricultural products, as well as a promise to open the Chinese market further to U.S. companies.
Xi is also likely to try to convince Trump that the trade relationship between the two countries is not a zero-sum game — that both sides can win, and have won, from it.
China runs by far the largest trade surplus with the United States, $319 billion in 2016, nearly half of the global U.S. trade deficit. But its Foreign Ministry likes to cite an estimate from the U.S.-
China Business Council that bilateral trade and investment created 2.6 million American jobs in 2015 and saved every American family $850 a year.
“Economic cooperation and trade has delivered visible and tangible benefits to the people of both countries,” said Zheng, the vice foreign minister.
He said there was also room for cooperation in investment “not just in infrastructure, but in other areas,” while also predicting that China would be importing more from the United States as it shifts its economy from state-led investment toward consumption and services.
“China will give greater emphasis to boosting domestic demand, and this will create conditions for an increase in imports of American goods and services,” he said.
There may be some skepticism in the American business community, which has been complaining about rising Chinese protectionism. Meanwhile, one of Zheng’s suggestions — that the United States lift restrictions on high-tech exports to China — is unlikely to fly in Washington, for reasons of national security.
In the longer term, disagreement over North Korea or Taiwan could introduce additional tensions to the relationship. Security issues in general could prove an even bigger stumbling block than trade.
The Trump administration is preparing a major arms deal with Taiwan that could include the sale of advanced rocket systems and anti-ship missiles to defend against China, U.S. officials told Reuters in March, a package that could end up significantly larger than one that was shelved at the end of the Obama administration.
The U.S. military will also continue operations in the South China Sea, including “continued close-in surveillance on China’s coast,” said Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.
“The meeting will help stabilize things, but it’s important to manage Chinese expectations,” he said. “These are some of our core interests — Taiwan and freedom of the seas. They happen to be contrary to China’s but they are not changing. Xi should hear that loud and clear.”
North Korea is another major source of friction: Trump wants the Chinese to put far more pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear missile program. China wants everyone to get around the table and talk.
“I think Trump is looking for real commitment and follow-through on North Korea,” Lohman said.
Getting around the table to talk is not going to cut it, he added. “We need results. If Trump can be tough with an ally like Angela Merkel, he can be tough with Xi Jinping. If he fails to take this issue on directly, he’s open to the charge of treating our potential adversaries better than our friends.”