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Trump expects 'difficult' meeting with China, but Beijing will come bearing gifts

A book on U.S. President Donald Trump sits on a shelf at a bookstore in Beijing on March 15, 2017. [Qilai Shen | Bloomberg]
A book on U.S. President Donald Trump sits on a shelf at a bookstore in Beijing on March 15, 2017. [Qilai Shen | Bloomberg]
Published Mar. 31, 2017

BEIJING — Hours after the official announcement that he will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time next week, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to reassure his supporters he would be standing 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. "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 severe White House decisions regarding tariffs and trade agreements.

But if Trump is talking tough on trade, the tone at a Chinese Foreign Ministry news conference Friday morning was much more conciliatory, downplaying differences and talking up the chance to take the relationship to a "new level" in a "new era."

Indeed, experts say the Chinese leader is likely to bring a package of pledges designed to assuage Trump's concerns, and give the U.S. president some "tweetable" promises to present as victories.

"China will continue to work with the United States to think creatively and keep pushing for greater balance in China-U.S. trade," said Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang. "If we can think creatively and take active steps, there is indeed a lot we can do on economics and trade. 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 and unpredictable Trump and the much more formal Chinese leader build on the "cordial" telephone conversation they apparently enjoyed in February and bring some stability back to the U.S.-China relationship?

The answer in the short term 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 worked for the National Security Council as Asia director under the Obama administration.

"That said, no one should be under the illusion this will create a personal bond that overrides different world views 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 instead a nearby hotel for fear of being bugged. This time, Florida police say he won't be staying at Trump's Mar-a-Lago club either, preferring the Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa in Manalapan, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Whether Trump and Xi really manage strike up a rapport remains to be seen.

"Xi likes to share his views in long 15-20 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. In this new win-win relationship, Xi's trip to the United States was 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 added.

So if Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was reported to be pledging to invest $150 billion and create 700,000 American jobs back in February, 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. "Therefore we can definitely let him have that victory."

Sun Zhe, a Sino-U.S. relations expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the fact that Xi was flying all the way to the United States so soon after the inauguration showed his "utmost sincerity" in wanting better ties.

Sun expects China's leader to bring a "huge check" to buy American agricultural products, as well as a promise to open the Chinese market further to American 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, some $319 billion in 2016, nearly half of the global U.S. trade deficit. But China's 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 were 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 transforms its economy away from state-led investment and towards 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 lifts restrictions on high-tech exports to China — is unlikely to fly in Washington, for reasons of national security.

In the longer term, however, disagreement over North Korea or Taiwan could introduce fresh tensions to the relationship. Security issues in general could act as an even greater fly in the ointment than trade.

The Trump administration is preparing a major arms sales deal with Taiwan that could include advanced rocket systems and anti-ship missiles to defend against China, U.S. officials told Reuters in March, a package that could top $1 billion and end up significantly larger than one that was shelved at the end of the Obama administration.

The U.S. military will also continue to operate 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. "It can't be an ask, it must be a demand."

Getting around the table to talk isn't going to cut it, he added. "We need results," he said. "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."