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China-US relations

Face to face again, Xi and Trump paper over differences on North Korea

Beijing and Washington talk up leaders’ second meeting but diplomatic observers say it failed to bridge any of their huge divides

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 July, 2017, 11:42pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 July, 2017, 11:47pm

US President Donald Trump maintained his rapport with his Chinese counterpart at their ­second face-to-face meeting on the weekend, despite glaring ­differences on how to keep North Korea on a leash, analysts said.

Meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, ­Germany, Trump and President Xi Jinping tried hard to avoid a showdown by papering over ­bilateral tensions from a raft of geopolitical challenges, from Pyongyang’s provocations to ­Taiwan and maritime disputes.

Both governments spoke highly of the two leaders’ second encounter on Saturday, which at less than an hour was much shorter than their first meeting in Florida in April or Trump’s two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin a day before.

Trump described Xi as “a friend” and tweeted on his way back to Washington early Sunday morning about his “excellent meeting” with the Chinese leader on trade and North Korea.

Trump calls North Korea ‘a problem and a menace’

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said both leaders agreed to maintain healthy and stable ­bilateral ties, “deepen mutually beneficial cooperation and ­properly manage their differences and sensitive issues”.

Analysts said that despite the symbolic significance of the meeting, it failed to yield real solutions to risks from their divergent and often conflicting interests.

Huang Jing, from the National University of Singapore, said the embattled Trump seemed eager to score some diplomatic points at the G20 summit. “Trump has yet to be able to work out an effective strategy to confront and ­contain China and that’s why he took such a conciliatory tone when he met Xi,” Huang said.

China and North Korea: What now if Xi-Trump bromance is over?

Trump has made little effort to conceal his growing frustration over Beijing’s perceived unwillingness to get tougher on Pyongyang, which Trump described in his meeting with Xi as “the very substantial problem”.

Senior US officials have threatened to use trade and other ­measures to ratchet up the pressure on China and, on the eve of the summit, Trump joined Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in urging Beijing to step up efforts on North Korea.

“Since the full spectrum of ­actions available to Trump ranges from getting Xi to deliver on his implicit promise over North Korea [in Florida in April] to using force to take out North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, and the US is not ready for the latter, Trump falls back on the easiest option,” Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China institute in London, said.

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Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a US think tank, said Trump would want to see China on his side, especially with Russia appearing to be in the North Korean camp. Luft also said Trump was aware that it might not be wise to stake US-China relations on North Korea.

Analysts also warned Beijing must get ready for Trump’s more confrontational approach in dealing with China. “The summit may have gone well, but have we actually seen any substantial results? Top leaders in Beijing should give up any ­illusions about Trump,” Huang said.

With Trump in power, Pyongyang playing up, it’s time for the US and China to act on North Korea

Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia with the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said that any understanding between the leaders may not hold for long as Trump was losing patience and appeared willing to use trade and other levers to influence China.

Additional reporting by Catherine Wong