Trump and Xi’s G-20 dinner could decide fate of U.S.-China trade war

President Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, China’s president, shake hands during a news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Qilai Shen.
President Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, China’s president, shake hands during a news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Qilai Shen.

Saturday night’s dinner meeting between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will witness a collision between two men convinced that they bring unique skills to the U.S.-China trade showdown.

The American president is a self-described dealmaker, with a history of wins and losses during a long real estate career. His negotiating partner is China’s most assertive global leader since Mao Zedong, who is certain that his destiny is to captain a historic national restoration.

Anticipation of the two leaders’ sit-down has all but overshadowed talks about the global economy and climate change at the annual Group of 20 leaders summit.

Speaking before a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday, Trump said he would be holding a “a very important meeting” with Xi.

[Trump to attend George H.W. Bush funeral, names Dec. 5 national day of mourning]


“We’ll be talking about a thing called trade,” the president told reporters, adding that the death of former president George H.W. Bush “really puts a damper on” the meeting.

Perhaps not since President Richard Nixon met Mao in 1972 have U.S.-China relations pivoted so closely around individual personalities, Aaron Friedberg, a China specialist at Princeton University, said.

“Both men have cast themselves as ‘maximum leaders,’ strong men defending the interests and honor of their nations,” Friedberg, a former foreign policy adviser to Vice President Richard B. Cheney, said via email. “Neither wants to appear weak, which would seem to narrow the scope for compromise, but neither wants to be blamed for a complete breakdown in relations.”

Both Trump and Xi are the sons of prominent fathers. Fred Trump was a wealthy real estate magnate in New York’s outer boroughs, while Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was among the founders of Communist China and survived multiple purges to become a key figure in China’s subsequent economic opening.

But the similarities end there for the two men who will face off across a dinner table in the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt on Saturday night.

“These are two very different people, who come from opposite professional and cultural backgrounds and probably really don’t ‘get’ the other,” emailed Scott Kennedy, director of the Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Their respective ‘America First’ and ‘China First’ approaches mean they’re inexorably linked and have to find a way to deal with each other.”

Since becoming general secretary of the Communist Party in 2012, Xi has shed China’s traditional reticence and spoken of leading “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” He has lavished funds on the Chinese military and asserted control over the South China Sea via an unprecedented island-building campaign.

Xi also has presided over an increasingly aggressive campaign to pilfer American technology to fuel China’s economic rise, according to the Trump administration.

“Xi is a coldblooded calculator of China’s — and his own — interests,” said Ryan Hass, who handled China issues for the National Security Council during the Barack Obama administration. “He is not a leader that seems to get swayed by sentimentality. He is always well prepared, and rarely spontaneous.”

Trump and Xi met in April 2017 at the president’s Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, and in Beijing in November 2017. After negotiations led by their subordinates ran aground, Trump telephoned Xi last month to reopen the dialogue.

The trade conflict, which has rattled financial markets and upended global supply chains, began this year when Trump imposed tariffs on a total of $253 billion of imported Chinese steel, industrial products and consumer goods, including handbags, furniture and appliances. Chinese officials, caught off guard by the aggressive U.S. moves, retaliated with import taxes on such American products as soybeans, automobiles and liquefied natural gas.

The Trump administration complains that China treats American companies unfairly in defiance of its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization. In March, U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer blistered China in a 215-page report accusing it of a comprehensive campaign to acquire and steal advanced U.S. technologies.

By generously subsidizing its state-owned enterprises and coercing American companies to surrender their trade secrets in return for access to the lucrative Chinese market, Beijing seeks to dominate the industries of the future, said Lighthizer.

Despite Trump’s tariffs and months of escalating U.S. complaints, China “has not fundamentally altered its unfair, unreasonable, and market-distorting practices,” Lighthizer said last month.

In recent weeks, officials at multiple levels of the two governments sought to develop a deal to avert additional U.S. tariffs while reinvigorated negotiations over a broader pact began.

Some analysts hope the two men will agree to a cease-fire in the tariff war, but there is profound skepticism about prospects for an enduring solution.

Trump and Xi will meet amid mounting worries that trade fights are undermining a weakening global economy. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said Saturday that “trade tensions have begun to have a negative effect” and are increasing the risk that growth will disappoint.


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