Chinese President Xi Jinping will be looking for signs that U.S. foreign policy is shifting more toward his own this week when he sits down for his first face-to-face meeting with Donald Trump at the president's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
The two days of talks are seen as a high-stakes moment crucial to injecting stability into ties between the world’s two biggest economies.
In a Twitter post days before the meeting, Trump predicted the talks would be difficult, given America’s massive trade deficit with China.
The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
In an interview with the Financial Times Sunday, Trump said if China doesn’t solve the deficit problem, “we will.”
Great power relations
For its part, Beijing appears focused more on atmospherics and slogans. Analysts and officials here say China will be watching closely for telltale signs that Washington may be adopting its view of relations between the two countries – the so-called ‘new style of major power relations.’
China wants to hear Trump reaffirm a pledge Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made on a visit to the Chinese capital last month, when he is reported to have spoken of “mutual respect,” and other diplomatic catch phrases Beijing sees as acknowledgement that China is on equal footing with the United States.
“The two presidents are going to define the nature of the relationship between China and the United States as characterized by this phrase: no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation,” said Wang Dong, a political scientist at Peking University.
Wang said China hopes the informal get-together will inject some stability into the relationship and help reduce uncertainties that have arisen during the transition to the Trump administration.
He said that while the meeting is unlikely to see any breakthroughs on thorny issues, he does see it helping map out the road ahead.
“It [the meeting] will help inject more stability into expectations for the future trajectory of U.S.-China relations,” Wang said.
While Beijing may see the meeting as setting the tone for the longer-term relationship, the Trump administration appears to be seeking immediate results, both on trade and North Korea.
A senior U.S. official briefing reporters ahead of the summit said Trump is “concerned about how the imbalance in our economic relationship affects American workers and wants to address these issues in a candid and productive manner.” The official said the U.S. president would “convey to President Xi the importance of establishing an economic relationship that is fair, balanced and based on the principle of reciprocity.”
The U.S. official said Trump also wants to use the occasion to push China to put more pressure on North Korea. He said “all options are on the table” with regard to the Korean peninsula, and suggested Beijing’s willingness to put pressure on Pyongyang’s erratic leadership would be an indicator of the direction of the bilateral relationship. “We have been left after 20-some-odd years of trying pretty much everything to bring about a safe and denuclearized [Korean] peninsula. This is in some ways a test of the relationship,” he said.
China helping MAGA
Before he took office, Trump made several comments that irked Chinese authorities; but after he spoke by phone to Xi in February, and in the weeks leading up to the Florida summit, Beijing has been playing up the positives.
Commentaries in Chinese media have highlighted how Trump needs China to make America great again. They have also put a lot of emphasis on how the U.S. benefits from trade and investment ties with the world’s second largest economy.
Some have even gone so far as to point out the personal benefits Trump sees from good ties, including China’s recent preliminary approval of more than 30 Trump trademarks in China.
At a briefing ahead of Xi’s U.S. trip, Zheng Zeguang, China’s vice foreign minister, spoke of Beijing’s desire to help address its trade imbalance with the U.S. He also denied China is deliberately seeking a trade surplus.
"China will further increase domestic demand and will also raise demand for foreign goods and services, including those from the United States,” Zheng said. Chinese investment in the U.S. has been rising rapidly in recent years.”
Zheng made no mention of policies that multinational corporations say are contributing to a worsening of the broader business climate in China. Beijing has been making promises about increasing market access for years, but late last year the government began tightly restricting the flow of capital overseas, impacting investments.
Pressuring China, however, may be a deal breaker, not a deal maker. It could also add uncertainty at a time when both sides are searching for a way forward, despite their huge differences.
U.S. officials made clear that despite the heavy agenda facing them, the two leaders and their wives would have plenty of time to get to know one another at the luxurious Mar-a-Lago resort. Trump considers the Florida resort his southern White House and has already spent a several weekends there during his 10-week presidency. But in an acknowledgement that the Chinese leader does not share Trump’s favorite pastime, one official quipped, “there will be no golf."