THE MEMO: Trump’s rhetoric meets reality with Xi visit

President Trump’s campaign promises on China are running up against reality as he hosts Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

Trump vigorously criticized China as a candidate. In one of his three presidential debates with Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump complained about Beijing “using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China” and added, “We have to stop our jobs being stolen from us.”

He sometimes went even further. In May, he told supporters in Indiana, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country — and that’s what they’re doing.”

But the blunt language of the campaign has given way to a more nuanced approach in office.

{mosads}The Trump administration has taken little action on his pledge, as a candidate, to crack down on Chinese currency manipulation — perhaps because the Chinese currency has been strengthening of late. 

Similarly, the White House moves on trade policy have also been cautious. Last week, for example, Trump ordered a wide-ranging review of the reasons behind American trade deficits, rather than taking more direct or sweeping action. 

Now, the president needs to deal with some turbulent currents. On one hand, his most fervent supporters expect serious action on China. On the other, he needs China’s cooperation, especially with the intensifying threat from North Korea.

Complicating things further, Trump would presumably like to see the summit go smoothly, in part to reassure skeptics that he is capable of leading on the global stage.

For all the knottiness of the U.S.-China relationship, experts on the issue said one key metric of the summit’s success would be the chemistry between the two leaders. Some noted that the decision to hold the meeting in Florida rather than in Washington might be beneficial, as was apparently the case with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who visited in February. 

“The physical place is important,” said Dean Cheng, a China expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Prime Minister Abe comes to meet with Trump at Mar-a-Lago and what comes out the other side? A very positive press conference with what appears to be genuine warmth.

“That is an interesting mark on the wall for the Chinese,” he added. “If you come out with something that looks like Trump and [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, in terms of body language and so forth, that’s not so good.” 

Several experts noted that Trump and Xi seemed unlikely to get into the arcane details of the relationship between the two nations. The summit, they suggested, would be more focused upon seeking to reach a broad understanding.

Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution said that one key question is whether the summit concludes with “tense and explosive” personal dynamics or whether it leaves them with “a better understanding of what the other is trying to do within his own system, and whether each has a certain confidence that the other will take his interests into account.”

While the American media have naturally focused on the domestic political imperatives bearing down on Trump, Xi also faces challenges. The National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will be held later this year. It is all but certain that Xi will be nominated for another five-year term as general secretary — the office from which his power actually derives — but observers say he nevertheless needs to show he can stand up for Chinese interests without rupturing relations with Washington. 

“No Chinese leader would survive if he or she was perceived as giving ground on issues such as Taiwanese independence or the South China Sea,” Cheng said. “The Chinese leader has to walk a finer line, in ways, than the American leader does — showing that he is not to be messed with but not so crazy as to jeopardize an economy that is already slowing down.”

Trump ruffled Chinese feathers during his transition period when he accepted a call from the president of Taiwan, which is considered a breakaway province by Beijing. 

In February, however, he said that he would stick to the more traditional American position, known as the “One China” policy.

Melanie Hart, the director of China policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said that the confusion over “One China” could prove an impediment for Trump as he seeks to pressure the Chinese over North Korea.

“Trump has already cried wolf over ‘One China’; now he has to convince Xi that he is serious on North Korea in a way that he was not serious on Taiwan.”

Hart was also forcefully critical of the emphasis Trump has placed in the past on alleged currency manipulation by Beijing.

“He has the responsibility to get the U.S.-China relationship back on track,” she said. “He made it all about the currency issue and his facts were wrong. China was not manipulating the currency down. … He made himself look like an idiot because the facts just don’t live up to what he’s claiming.”

The world has pressed in on Trump this week. His administration seemed to shift tack on Syria after a chemical attack, which U.S. officials attribute to the government, killed around 100 people, suggesting it would again support the ouster of President Bashar Assad as part of a resolution to the country’s civil war. North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the sea off the Korean peninsula on Wednesday. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Russia next week.

Amid all those pressures, the White House will be hoping to avoid roiling the waters any further during Xi’s visit.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency. 

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton

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