China’s Xi Jinping would be forgiven for feeling confused. Donald Trump accused China of “raping our country” during his election campaign. Next week Mr Xi will be feted by the US president at his so-called winter White House in Mar-a-Lago.
Though Mr Trump tweeted on Thursday that their meeting would be “a very difficult one”, the confusion lies within his administration. As Mr Trump discovered on healthcare, the gap between campaign rhetoric and reality is vast — especially on the nature of US-China trade. The Chinese have the advantage of knowing their own mind. Mr Xi’s main goal is to avert a trade war. Amid continued internal battles between White House protectionists and free traders, Mr Trump’s mind remains unsettled.
Though he has almost no China background, Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law, is leading the US preparation for next week’s meeting. His counterpart is Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador in Washington. That, alone, gives China an edge. Mr Cui is a professional diplomat who knows America well — he did his postgraduate studies in the US capital and worked as an interpreter at the UN.
Mr Kushner’s chief qualification is that he is married to the president’s daughter. Mr Cui has just one job — US-China relations. Among other things, Mr Kushner is the White House point person for Middle East peace, criminal justice reform and US business innovation.
China seems to have grasped that the best way to influence Mr Trump is via his family. Chinese diplomats have gone out of their way to court Mr Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who were their guests of honour at the Chinese new year celebration in February. China has also looked favourably on Mr Trump’s business.
Since his inauguration it has approved dozens of pending trademark applications by The Trump Organization. The volume of applications to market Ivanka Trump’s brand in China has also soared. This week, Kushner Companies — the family property group from which Jared has stepped back — ended talks to sell a prime piece of Manhattan real estate on very favourable terms to Anbang, a Chinese company, after members of Congress alleged a conflict of interest.
Next week will be the first big test of whether China is getting a return on its Trump family relationships. At one extreme, Mr Trump could threaten to carry out his campaign vow to impose a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese imports — a step that would provoke a global trade war and fall foul of the World Trade Organisation. That would produce a similar outcome to Mr Trump’s rancorous meeting with Angela Merkel last month, in which he presented her with a massive invoice for Germany’s defence costs.
At the other extreme, Mr Xi could package a few Chinese investments into easily tweetable jobs announcements. Last year China invested a record $45bn in the US — mostly in real estate, finance and entertainment.
Putting several billion more into greenfield US infrastructure projects would be a small price to pay for averting a trade war. Jack Ma, head of Alibaba, China’s largest private company, won Mr Trump’s favour when he announced he would create 1m US jobs — a number dismissed by analysts as meaningless.
Mr Xi could also place a few more Boeing orders — a tried and tested Chinese tactic. It is a measure of the Trump administration’s chaos that nobody knows which line Mr Trump will take.
The backdrop to the meeting is surreal. Within Mr Trump’s first 70 days, China has taken over America’s role of defending the world trading system and assuming global leadership to tackle climate change.
It is highly unlikely Mr Xi will convince Mr Trump to abandon his “America first” agenda in one meeting. But he is poised to try. Befriending the Trump family was a savvy first step. Tee-ing up some shovel-ready US infrastructure projects would be a smart second one.
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