HONG KONG — After running a successful campaign that flung heavy criticism China’s way, U.S. President Trump is set to meet face-to-face with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for the first time on Thursday to discuss a range of issues, including the one-China policy, security on the Korean peninsula, territorial claims in the South China Sea and climate change protocol.
While North Korea, which just tested another medium-range missile on Tuesday, will undoubtedly be a key matter for the two world leaders, trade issues will feature prominently, too, during the two days of meetings at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
Trump’s campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator has yet to come true, as is the threat of trade tariffs.
“Not yet,” said Tom Rafferty, China regional manager at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “Trump is in no position at present to implement these pledges, but we expect him to return to the issues in due course. The ‘currency manipulator’ label is symbolic, but mostly meaningless, so could prove appealing. Border-tax adjustments will be much more impactful, but we doubt they could be implemented because of the political and economic complexities.”
Although the importance of the U.S. as an export destination for China has fallen in recent years, it remains a major trading partner, accounting for 18.2 percent of the Asian nation’s direct exports in 2016.
“A degree of pragmatism is clearly evident in President Trump’s recent outreach to China,” a report from the Institute for China-America Studies said. “Yet having styled himself as an unpredictable anti-establishment president with a determination to set America’s yawning trade deficit with China straight, it is by no means clear that he envisions himself as pliantly reverting to the mean on China policy, as have all his post-1972 predecessors.”
Trump will be under more scrutiny to keep his promise on jobs, said Alison Szalwinski, assistant director for political and security affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research.
Unlike some issues such as Taiwan, where his stance has wavered, “this is a pretty major issue he spent much of his campaign on — that he would crack down on China and bring back the jobs,” she said.
While it would be unfeasible to “bring back” jobs that left the U.S. for cheaper shores, “a win on jobs is something like getting an agreement from China to investment in the United States that would then require hiring U.S. workers and creating new ones,” Szalwinski said.
Before taking office, Trump met with Alibaba founder Jack Ma, who vowed to create one million jobs in the U.S. over the next five years.
From China’s perspective, it’s all about keeping the relationship steady as the country readies for its 19th National Congress, when the majority of the Politburo Standing Committee, the top governing body, is expected to retire.
“China wants the U.S. to not rock the boat,” Rafferty said. “It’s concerned that major changes in U.S. trade or security will upset planning for the scheduled reshuffle at the top of the Communist Party later this year.”
Ultimately, nothing too earth-shattering is expected to come out of this week’s meeting, although there will certainly be cues on what route the relationship will take.
“We don’t expect anything substantive from the talks, which are informal,” Rafferty said. “However, any sign of outright disagreement or a badly managed press conference would send a worrying signal. The consensus is that the meeting will project stability.”
Szalwinski agreed with that sentiment. “It’s the first time they will be meeting and gauging each other, so I think we will be looking for the tone of the meeting more so than any big major announcements or deliverables,” she said.
More, however, could be revealed by who shows up from the Trump administration to attend the summit.
“People should consider and take a look at who is at the meeting — who attends on the U.S. side as that will be a good indicator of who is driving this administration’s policy on China,” Szalwinski said. “There are a number of foreign policy positions on important issues like trade that are still yet to be filled.”