Washington, D.C.

Trump and Xi’s first meeting: How long will cordiality last?

Chinese president expected to be pressed aggressively on trade, North Korea
President Xi Jinping of China speaks during a reception and dinner at the Westin Hotel in Seattle on Sept. 22, 2015.
President Xi Jinping of China speaks during a reception and dinner at the Westin Hotel in Seattle on Sept. 22, 2015.

PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, the president of China, will take each other’s measure Thursday as they meet for the first time to discuss trade tensions, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and other issues.

The two men will spend about 24 hours together at Trump’s beachside Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, in what officials from both countries expect will be a public demonstration of respect as the adversaries seek to build a working relationship.

But behind closed doors, U.S. officials said, the president intends to aggressively press his counterpart to more effectively use China’s economic leverage on North Korea to restrain its rogue leader, Kim Jong Un, from developing nuclear weapons.

And while U.S. officials played down the prospect of substantive discussions on trade, Trump is expected to privately repeat the tough statements he often makes on Twitter about the U.S. trade deficit with China, which has swelled to more than $300 billion a year.

How tough Trump is with Xi privately, and the reaction from the Chinese leader, may depend on the outcome of a fierce debate inside the White House about how to confront Beijing over trade.

Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, said “bitter internal battles” had erupted between Trump advisers who want to be more aggressive in challenging China on trade and those who counsel a more moderate tone.

“Trump’s more moderate advisers appear to have persuaded him that it would be more effective and less risky to pursue his grievances” through existing trade organizations, Manning wrote this week.

Since his election, Trump has sent contradictory signals about his approach to China and the effects of his “America First” foreign policy on the relationship between the two countries.

Before he was sworn into office, Trump made an unorthodox telephone call to the president of Taiwan, and subsequently suggested that the United States might no longer honor the “One China” policy that has for decades recognized a single Chinese government.

But in February, Trump reversed himself during a call with Xi. At that point, the two men also agreed on the “necessity and urgency of strengthening cooperation” between their nations.

Trump has hosted a steady stream of world leaders at the White House since becoming president. But his diplomatic inexperience and his sometimes inconsistent approach toward China have raised the stakes for the meeting with Xi, who is looking to prove that he can hold his own against the U.S. president.

On North Korea, Trump has publicly criticized China for failing to do enough to curb Kim. The president wrote on Twitter last month that North Korea had “been ‘playing’ the United States for years,” adding, “China has done little to help.”

On Tuesday, days before the summit meeting here, North Korea tested another ballistic missile.

Trump is expected to urge Xi to punish North Korea by cutting off its access to financial institutions and cracking down on people who evade United Nations sanctions. If China resists, the United States could impose its own sanctions against Chinese companies and people, a move that could lead to a surge in tensions between the two nations.

On the eve of the visit, and perhaps to heighten the pressure on Xi, Trump spoke on Wednesday with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, in a discussion that focused on North Korea’s threat, according to a statement from the White House. China and Japan are uneasy neighbors, but both have called on the North to stop its saber-rattling and agree to retreat on its nuclear ambitions.

The White House statement said that Trump had vowed to protect the United States’ interests and allies in the region, but it conspicuously avoided any mention of China in the short description of his conversation with Abe. The president “emphasized that the United States stands with its allies Japan and South Korea in the face of the serious threat that North Korea continues to pose,” the statement said.

Other issues likely to come up in the discussions on Thursday could add to the strain.

The United States has opposed Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, which the Obama administration called excessive. The previous administration demonstrated its opposition by sailing warships near the artificial island that China has been building in the area.

During his confirmation hearings to become secretary of state, Rex Tillerson said the United States should “send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops. And second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”

Climate change, which previously produced agreement between the two nations, could also be a source of tension during the meetings between Trump and Xi.

After intense negotiations with President Barack Obama, Xi agreed to jointly participate in global efforts to combat climate change. But Trump has moved quickly to reverse his predecessor’s climate agenda, raising questions about the future of cooperation with China on that subject.

Washington’s retreat on climate change will allow China to take a global leadership role on the issue, something it craves.

Xi is expected to arrive in Florida around midday on Thursday. He is staying at a nearby hotel and is scheduled to depart by midday on Friday.

The two men are not expected to play golf, in part because Xi has discouraged Communist Party officials from playing the game as part of his anti-corruption campaign at home.

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