Meet the people shaping China-US ties ahead of the Xi-Trump summit
The key advisers who have their presidents’ ear as the two nations’ heads of state prepare to meet in Florida this week
The first summit between President Xi Jinping and Donald Trump takes place at the US president’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida this week and officials responsible for formulating their nations’ foreign policies will be put under the spotlight. The two leaders are expected to tackle a range of issues from North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme to trade disputes. Here are some of the key members of both leaders’ teams of advisers.
Yang Jiechi, State Councillor
An experienced diplomat, Yang has quietly risen to the top position overseeing the country’s international policies. Yang, who outranks Foreign Minister Wang Yi, has often played an important role as China sought to ease tensions amid international disputes.
Yang is believed to have played a central role in preparations for the summit between Xi and Trump. He was a key advocate for an early meeting between the two presidents.
Wang Yi, Foreign Minister
Wang is China’s second highest-ranking diplomat and oversees the foreign ministry. He was formerly China’s ambassador to Japan and director of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office.
Wang said in his press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress last month that despite initial widespread concerns over Sino-US ties during Trump’s first days in office, relations were “transitioning steadily and developing in a positive direction” through close communications.
Cui Tiankai, Chinese ambassador to Washington
The Chinese embassy in Washington sensed the urgent need to approach Trump after the US president’s initial harsh rhetoric against China, especially issues regarding Taiwan. After Trump did not send Lunar New Year greetings to China, breaking a tradition established by his predecessors in the White House, the embassy thought inviting his daughter Ivanka Trump for its spring festival reception might build bridges.
Cui and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, orchestrated a fence-mending phone call between Trump and Xi in February, during which Trump pledged to abide by the one-China policy on Taiwan, The New York Times reported.
Zheng Zeguang, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs
Zheng is responsible for US policy in the foreign ministry and was part of the delegation at the Sunnylands summit in California between Xi and Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama in 2013.
Wang Huning, director of the Central Policy Research Unit
As head of the Communist Party’s top research office, Wang’s role is a combination of national policy adviser and chief speech writer. He is seen during almost all key domestic and international trips made by President Xi Jinping. He has gained respect among the leadership for the depth of his academic knowledge, political neutrality and cautious approach.
Liu He, director of the General Office of the Central Leading Group on Economic and Financial Affairs
Liu, 65, was promoted to this role four years ago, months before the Communist Party issued a key document outlining economic reforms for the next decade.
A technocrat, once described by Xi as “very important to me”, Liu has repeatedly emphasised the need for market-oriented reforms. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Li Zhanshu, director of the general office of the Communist Party
Li, 66, is arguably Xi’s most powerful ally after anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan. Li’s ties with Xi go back to the 1980s when Xi governed Zhengding county in Hebei province while Li was in charge of neighbouring Wuji county. As director of the general office, Li is tasked with assisting the president on a range of issues, including diplomacy, the economy and legal reforms.
He is one of the office’s most powerful directors over the past few decades. His predecessors did not have seats on the Politburo. He almost always accompanies the president on domestic and overseas trips.
Steve Bannon, White House chief strategist
Probably the most influential adviser to Trump, Bannon was the former executive of the right-wing media outlet media Breitbart News. He was also a former banker at Goldman Sachs banker. He has very strong opinions against China. He said in a radio programme in March last year that China and the US would be at war within the next 10 years over the control of islands in the South China Sea.
Peter Navarro, Chief Trade Adviser
As one of the few economists in Trump’s team, Navarro is a staunch China critic and advocate for an aggressive stance towards Beijing. Navarro has supported tariffs on Chinese goods and described China as a threat to the US economy. He said Beijing’s desire to become the dominant economic and military power in Asia has triggered warnings for the US.
Jared Kushner, White House senior adviser
The 36-year-old son-in-law of Trump has no previous government experience, but he is viewed by China as a bridge between Beijing and the Trump administration. The Chinese ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, has established a back channel of communication with Kushner, The New York Times reported.
The two agreed on Mar-a-Lago as the venue for the meeting between Xi and Trump, it said. Kushner passed on proposals from Cui to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who travelled to East Asia in March.
Ivanka Trump, White House adviser
The 35-year-old businesswoman, an unpaid adviser in her father’s administration, played an important role in helping counter her father’s combative approach towards China. She made a surprise visit to the Chinese embassy in Washington with her five-year-old daughter, Arabella Kushner, in February - which was viewed as a sign that Beijing was establishing contact with members of Trump’s family.
Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of State
The former chief of ExxonMobil has close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During his confirmation hearing in January, Tillerson said China should be denied access to disputed islands it has built in the South China Sea.
However, in his trip to China last month he adopted a more conciliatory tone, repeating phrases such as “mutual respect” and “win-win solutions”, commonly used by Beijing to describe the relationship between the two nations.
Herbert McMaster, national security adviser
McMaster is a highly regarded military tactician and strategic thinker. He replaced Michael Flynn, a retired army lieutenant general, who resigned as national security adviser on February 13 after reports that he misled Vice-President Mike Pence about speaking to Russia’s ambassador on US sanctions before Trump’s inauguration. McMaster, 54, is a West Point graduate known as “H.R.,” with a PhD in US history from the University of North Carolina. He was listed as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2014 as one of this century’s pre-eminent “warrior-thinkers”.
Susan Thornton, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs
Thornton accompanied Tillerson in his East Asia trip in March. She is responsible for policy related to China, Mongolia, and Taiwan. A career member of the United States foreign service, she joined the State Department in 1991 and has spent the last twenty years working on US policy focused on the countries of the former Soviet Union and East Asia.
Matt Pottinger, National Security Council, senior director for Asia
Pottinger was nominated by ex-national security advisor Michael Flynn. He also accompanied Tillerson in his East Asia trip in March. Pottinger is a former US Marine captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan after finishing his career in journalism covering China for the Wall Street Journal from 2001 to 2005 and for Reuters from 1998 to 2001. He worked with Flynn closely and co-authored the 2010 report “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan”.