North Korea and trade on table as Trump hosts Chinese leader

Xi Jinping’s visit to Florida will be a study in deal-making and a huge contrast in styles

Golf is unlikely to feature on the agenda when US president Donald Trump hosts his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago resort on Thursday and Friday, given how football fan Xi has overseen a crackdown on what he calls "green opium" and banned Communist Party cadres from teeing off.

When the leaders of the world's two biggest economies meet in Florida for the first time, Trump is sure to try to use trade as leverage to force China to do more to quell the nuclear threat from North Korea.

"If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will," Trump said in an interview with the Financial Times in the run-up to t he Palm Beach meeting.

The North’s rapidly advancing nuclear programme and missile capabilities have significantly raised tensions. Deputy national security adviser KT McFarland said that North Korea may be able to reach American soil with a nuclear-armed missile before the end of the first Trump term.


If China does not use its “great influence over North Korea” to help solve the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula, “it won’t be good for anyone”, said Trump.

Beijing and Pyongyang do indeed have close relations, even if the Chinese have been angered by North Korea pursuing its nuclear ambitions while ignoring Beijing’s calls for restraint. China accounts for at least 90 per cent of North Korean trade.

While Trump is likely to look for more punitive measures against North Korea, such as tougher sanctions, Beijing is worried about possible regime collapse in Pyongyang, which could lead to reunification of the two Koreas, removing a valuable security buffer and potentially putting US troops at China’s borders.

"Trump will focus on trade ties and North Korea," said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London. "The underlying assumption could be that the Trump administration might 'park' the trade and currency manipulation issues for the moment, in return for Xi promising that China would fix North Korea."

This could in general terms be acceptable to Xi, whose primary concern is to get a successful summit showing that he can manage Trump, said Tsang.

"Xi might try to squeeze more concessions from Trump, such as Taiwan or a reiteration of the 'One China policy'. I think the calculations on both sides are that a deal could be done," he told The Irish Times.

It is significant that the meeting will take place before Trump has managed to put an Asia team in place and before he has formulated a China strategy.

“Xi is willing to take the risk over Trump’s unpredictability,” said Tsang.

Less bargaining power

Having unilaterally withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Trump has less bargaining power than he might think.

Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, certainly sees no "bromance" in the offing.

"In Trump's judgment, his political supporters care more about getting tough on China than North Korea. If he can wring significant trade concessions from China at the summit, he will regain some credibility with them," Pei wrote in the Nikkei Asian Review.

While sharing respective visions of greatness for their two countries, it is hard to imagine two more different leaders

Pei argues it is “inconceivable” that Xi would agree to the kind of protectionist measures proposed by Trump that would effectively stymie China’s economic development.

Should Trump raise the issue of China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, which have caused ructions with its neighbours, it could be a sign that the US is ready to step up its presence in the region, which would lead to further tensions.

On a personal level, it is hard to see many areas where the two leaders will click, especially without a few holes of golf to loosen things up – a tactic Trump employed when he played two rounds with Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

While sharing respective visions of greatness for their two countries, it is hard to imagine two more different leaders.

Xi likes to speak of his China dream of rejuvenation, of a proud nation with revived influence in the Asia-Pacific, a booming innovative economy guided by the firm, steady hand of the Communist Party.

Meanwhile, Trump tweets of making America great again, of bringing jobs back from China, a country he accuses of “raping” the US economy.

“The meeting with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses. American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives,” is how the “tweeter-in-chief” sees the situation ahead of the meeting.