Chinese President Xi Jinping’s calculated style will come face-to-face with President Trump’s off-the-cuff approach to diplomacy Thursday when the two gather at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for what could be the highest stakes U.S.-China summit in more than a decade.
Whether the two very different leaders can make progress, current and former officials say, will set the stage for either enhanced cooperation or a meltdown between Beijing and Washington on everything from North Korea’s nuclear weapons and Taiwanese sovereignty to international trade and territorial disputes in the heavily trafficked waters off China’s coasts.
Mr. Trump, a sharp critic of Beijing on the campaign trail last year, is under pressure to follow through from his political base to make good on his rhetoric when he meets with Mr. Xi for the two-day summit. Mr. Xi for his part has stepped up as an unlikely champion of free markets and open global trade as the new U.S. government pursues its “America First” agenda.
“President Trump campaigned on addressing trade deficits and unfair Chinese trade practices, and China is clearly in his sights,” Myron Brilliant, head of international affairs the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told the Associated Press.
U.S. officials say Mr. Trump wants Beijing to do far more than it has so far to contain its hostile, economically dependent neighbor, a push that has eluded Washington for years while Pyongyang has moved closer and closer to developing nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton said Wednesday that the North Korea issue “has become very urgent,” although she seemed to acknowledge the prospect of quick progress is unlikely.
“We will be looking for help from China to increase the pressure,” Ms. Thornton told reporters.
In what analysts said was a message timed for both leaders, North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the waters off its east coast on Wednesday, in a reminder of its ability to send tensions soaring on the Korean peninsula and throughout the region.
Analysts say Mr. Xi wants to focus more on trade — and Mr. Trump’s threats to curb Chinese exports to the U.S. — than on North Korea. But Beijing’s own predictions for Mar-a-Lago have been at best scripted and vague.
Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang has said only that “both sides look forward to a successful meeting so that a correct direction can be set for the growth of bilateral relations.”
It is possible that political developments inside China could shape Mr. Xi’s approach, as he doesn’t want a distracting confrontation with Mr. Trump ahead of crucial leadership changes expected in Beijing this fall, according to an analysis circulated this week by the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. The Chinese president may be willing to hand Mr. Trump a small but symbolic victory on trade, as long as the summit does not appear to create a significant crisis in the bilateral relationship.
The Chinese president will likely seek a joint announcement of “broad principles that will govern bilateral relations,” said the analysis, led by Victor Cha, who served as an adviser on North Korea to President George W. Bush.
“It is not evident, however, that the Trump administration is either ready or inclined to this approach, particularly given the president’s tweet about the summit,” the analysis said.
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