President Donald Trump gets his chance Thursday to confront the leader of a nation he blames for stealing millions of U.S. jobs and enabling North Korea's march toward a nuclear missile.
Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Trump's Mar-a-Lago club in Florida is the first real test of the U.S. president's campaign promises to win negotiations with America's chief economic and military rival. After defeats on his travel ban and Obamacare repeal, Trump wants to show progress countering North Korea's nuclear threat and opening Chinese markets to more U.S. goods.
Yet the world's most important international relationship could hinge above all on what kind of rapport Trump and Xi can build.
"They should be happy if they get something fairly symbolic,” said Jacques deLisle, who teaches Chinese law and politics at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. "Now, is that a real big victory? No. But I think the victory for everybody is to keep the relationship from going off the rails.”
Trump enters the meeting talking tough. He said on Twitter last week that talks would be "difficult” due to U.S. manufacturing job losses he blames on the world's second-largest economy and the yawning trade deficit between the countries. He signaled he is out of patience with China on North Korea, saying in a Financial Times interview published April 2 that the U.S. could act on its own to resolve the crisis over North Korea's nuclear program.
His administration is also trying to prevent Chinese investors from obtaining the nuclear reactor construction business of Westinghouse, the Toshiba Corp. unit that declared bankruptcy on March 29.
"I think we're going to have a very interesting talk,” Trump told U.S. business leaders on Tuesday. "We have to do better,” he said, calling the more than $300 billion annual U.S.-China trade deficit "enough for a lifetime.”
But the summit comes at a low ebb in the Trump administration, after House Republicans couldn't gather enough support for a vote on legislation to scale back Obamacare and Trump's ban on travel by six predominantly Muslim nations was again blocked by courts. Trump's approval rating was at 38 percent for the week ended April 2, the lowest of his presidency, according to Gallup.
Trump's resort offers a setting for low-pressure conversation. After dining at Trump's club on Thursday with their wives, the two leaders will likely spend Friday in a series of working sessions. There may also be a stroll around the grounds of the beach-side resort, said administration officials who briefed reporters Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
The summit could be upended, however, by a literal explosion.
South Korean intelligence has warned that North Korea could conduct its sixth nuclear bomb test in the first week of April to "overshadow” the Mar-a-Lago meeting. That would reprise a tactic North Korean leader Kim Jong Un employed in February, when a Trump summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago was disrupted by reports of a missile test.
"It's possible that Kim has plans to interrupt another dinner,” David Dollar, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former U.S. Treasury attache in Beijing, told reporters on Tuesday.
North Korea's pursuit of a nuclear missile capable of striking the U.S. is the most pressing issue in the relationship. Trump has vowed he will never allow the country to develop the capability and administration officials briefing reporters said the clock has almost expired.
Trump has repeatedly placed blame on China -- which provides crucial economic support to the Kim Jong Un regime -- saying that Xi can curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions but has refused.
'Scratch Their Heads'
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Japan and South Korea last month, and said the U.S. would consider all options, including pre-emptive military action, to prevent North Korea from attacking the U.S. or its allies with nuclear weapons.
China has called for the resumption of diplomatic talks over the nuclear threat and has objected to the U.S. deployment of a missile defense system in South Korea. Xi may offer to take some limited action against North Korea, said Doug Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
"I've heard from inside China that after Tillerson's visit, they really did scratch their heads on how they can do more on North Korea,” Paal, who ho served as White House director of Asian affairs in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, said in an interview. "They're not going to deliver Kim Jong Un's head on a platter. But they are looking to see if there are areas where they can do more.”
Paal, who was briefed by Trump administration officials in advance of the trip, said the White House may have set its expectations too high.
"They are talking about setting deadlines for fixing the problem. Well, good luck with that at this kind of meeting,” he said. "It sounds to me like they have a very undeveloped or you might say immature sense of what you can do in meetings like this and how you work a relationship with China.”
Leading up to the summit, Trump escalated his attacks on China for taking U.S. jobs and contributing to the hollowing out of the U.S. manufacturing sector.
On March 31, Trump signed an executive order requiring a comprehensive study to identify every form of "trade abuse” that contributes to U.S. deficits with other countries. The $347 billion deficit with China last year accounted for almost half of the total U.S. trade deficit.
At the same time, China is among the top three export markets for 33 American states and Chinese investments have boosted some U.S. industries. Xi will likely highlight China's U.S. financial investments in the meeting and offer future deals in areas such as aviation and agriculture, Paal said.
The Chinese will try to deter Trump from following through on campaign promises to impose tariffs against China and label the country a currency manipulator.
"The Chinese are acutely aware of the 45 percent tariff threat,” said deLisle, the University of Pennsylvania professor. "They are aware of the currency manipulator threat.”
Chinese leaders may make offers to buy a large number of Boeing Co. airplanes or other investments, allowing Trump to claim he negotiated a deal to help the economy, he said.
"The Chinese know how to play this game,” he said. "They understand the politics of the business relationship.”
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