Tomorrow, U.S. President Donald Trump will begin his first face-to-face meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The meet-and-greet, to be held at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, will be the first direct engagement between the two leaders since a phone call on February 9.
On Tuesday evening, the White House held a briefing on what to except from the highly anticipated meeting. Senior administration officials, speaking on background, provided our clearest picture to date of what Trump and Xi will talk about in their time together.
The first takeaway: this is a relationship-building meeting, not a forum for major breakthroughs. That’s not surprising, given the short nature of Xi’s visit. According to the briefing, Xi will arrive at Mar-a-Lago in the afternoon of April 6 and depart after lunch on April 7 – making for “about a 24-hour visit.” That won’t leave much time for substantial discussions. Plus, the meeting is purposefully “informal,” meant as more of a get-to-know-you interaction than a deep dive into policy details. As part of that, the senior official said, topics for discussion “have not been scripted out in advance.”
Instead, the White House official said that the meeting “is really an opportunity for the two leaders to exchange views on each other’s respective priorities and to chart a way forward for the U.S.-China bilateral relationship.”
So what priorities will Trump be emphasizing? The official made it clear that trade tops the list, saying that “the primary purpose of the meeting is to set a framework for discussions on trade and investment.” In fact, trade and economic relations was the only issue brought up in opening remarks at the briefing, rather than being addressed in response to a reporter’s question. That focus echoes Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which generally mentioned China in the context of unfair trade practices and currency manipulation, leading to job losses in America.
The emphasis on trade also matches a late March Twitter chain from Trump himself, who said his meeting with Xi “will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses.” As if that weren’t enough, just ahead of the meeting, the White House released two new executive orders on trade, a clear signal to China that this is a top priority for the Trump administration.
However, again, the briefing downplayed any expectations of a breakthrough, saying this “introductory meeting” was meant to “put a framework in place for how we’re going to discuss and address these matters.” At the end of the briefing, the official was even more blunt: “I would not anticipate we’re going to be at the point of resolving those issues in this one-day set of meetings.”
The issue that got the second-most attention in the briefing was, unsurprisingly North Korea. A spate of recent missile tests, coupled with persistent rumors of an upcoming nuclear test, has raised alert levels in Washington as the Trump administration reviews policy options for dealing with Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Much of the discussion has focused on how to convince China to up its pressure on North Korea, a theme Trump himself has repeatedly mentioned.
The senior official said that North Korea remains “a matter of urgent interest for the president and the administration as a whole… So certainly it is going to come up in their discussions.” More specifically, the official predicted Trump will send a “clear signal to President Xi” about the need for China to “begin exerting its considerable economic leverage” over North Korea.
The official shied away from confirming that secondary sanctions – sanctions targeting Chinese firms that do business with North Korea – were under consideration. However, later in the briefing the official added that “the clock has now run out [on the North Korea issue], and all options are on the table for us.”
Other perennial thorns in the U.S.-China relationship got little mention. Asked about the South China Sea issue, the official said, “The United States certainly will continue to fly and sail where international law allows. And I would not be surprised if that came up in conversation.” But the South China Sea does not appear to be a top-shelf issue, at least at this initial meeting.
Human rights concerns will likely get similar treatment. Trump has paid little attention to human rights in general. Some have read a section of his inaugural address, in which he pledged that “we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone,” as a retreat from upholding freedoms abroad.
Asked directly about whether Trump would broach human rights issues with Xi, the senior official replied, “We’ll see what is concretely discussed, but human rights are integral to who we are as Americans… And human rights issues I would expect will continue to be brought up in the relationship.”
There is an indication for one potential deliverable from the meeting: a new framework for talks. The existing top-tier platform for U.S.-China engagement, the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), was an Obama administration creation. The S&ED expanded the Bush-era Strategic Economic Dialogue; the new platform was announced after Obama’s first meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, in April 2009. It makes sense, then, that Trump’s administration would seek to put their own stamp on U.S.-China engagement by announcing a new dialogue platform at or shortly after the Trump-Xi meeting. That’s doubly true given concerns in the Trump administration that the S&ED had become an unwieldy, unproductive talkshop.
“I do think that there is going to be some movement toward a framework for dialogues that will be elevated from some of the previous or preexisting dialogues that have existed with prior administrations,” the senior official said, “and for those dialogues to be streamlined and for there to be clear deadlines for achieving results.”
Those later talks, whatever form they take, will be focused on “results.” This week’s meeting will mostly provide, as the briefing put it, a “framework” for future engagement. The biggest immediate question is whether that framework is a new creation, or involves borrowing from old concepts like China’s “new type of great power relations.”