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Donald Trump

Xi Jinping and Donald Trump may meet next month at G20 amid rising China-US tensions

The two presidents could meet in Buenos Aires at the end of November as relations between their countries continue to be strained by multiple issues

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 October, 2018, 12:51am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 October, 2018, 6:20am

President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump plan to meet in Buenos Aires during the Group of 20 leaders’ summit at the end of November, amid rising tensions between the countries over trade, South China Sea and Taiwan issues.

The Trump administration has informed Beijing of its decision to go ahead with the meeting in recent days, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. China has been hoping such a meeting could provide an opportunity for both sides to try to ease the escalating trade tensions.

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The meeting – expected to take place at the G20 summit in Argentina’s capital city at the end of November, according to the Journal report – has been pushed by US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, who are worried about the global stock market rout that has followed the trade fight.

It is significant that Mnuchin and Kudlow, the China trade moderates on Trump’s team, are having their way, at least for the time being. Trump’s China trade actions often reflect the agendas of hardliners such as National Trade Council Adviser Peter Navarro and United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

Since the trade war began about two months ago, Washington has imposed tariffs on US$250 billion of Chinese imports, about half of what China sends the US.

I think the Chinese have got to come and say, ‘OK, we’re going to change our structure’
US National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow

Citing unnamed officials familiar with the matter, the Journal said Trump has dedicated a team to plan for his summit with Xi. One of the people involved in the planning is Christopher Nixon Cox, grandson of former US President Richard Nixon, whose 1972 trip to China eventually led to diplomatic relations between the two nations.

Meanwhile, the planning team on the Chinese side includes Vice-Premier Liu He, who is also Xi’s top economic adviser, the report said. A spokeswoman at the Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether planning for the reported summit is proceeding.

Dennis Wilder, a former CIA chief of China studies and senior East Asia director at the National Security Council, told the South China Morning Post that Chinese officials have indicated the need for the meeting.

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“China is eager to engage the [US] president directly because they feel that the people negotiating for the president don’t always know his real bottom line,” Wilder said. “So they want to find out from President Trump directly just what it is going to take to get out of the trade war.”

“The only way I can see this being solved is at the leader-to-leader level meeting,” he said, adding that lower-level officials would struggle to resolve the impasse “without the leaders giving them indications of exactly what a deal might look like”.

Kudlow acknowledged on CNBC's Squawk on the Street on Thursday that the presidents could meet during the G20 summit. But he suggested the Trump administration intends to hold firm to the position it has been taking with Beijing on the trade impasse.

“I think the Chinese have got to come and say, ‘OK, we’re going to change our structure, we’re going to abide by the laws and we’re going to make a fair trade deal that will help the American economy and the American workforce,’” Kudlow said. “They’ve got to do that. They have not done that yet.”

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“I believe it’s always better to talk than not to talk,” Kudlow said. “But thus far their response has been unsatisfactory to our asks.”

The Trump administration’s demands, he said, “are pretty common sense. Europe shares our view, and Japan shares our view and Canada shares our view. So, we’ll see how it plays out.”

Trump has been sending mixed signals recently on whether the US and China could reach a trade agreement.

During a rally in Topeka, Kansas last Saturday, the president said: “Right now we are working on a deal with China. They have been hitting us hard, but relations are good at the minute.”

Three days later, Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that China was “not ready” to reach a trade deal and repeated a threat to hit the world’s second-largest economy with further punitive tariffs.

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“China wants to make a deal, and I say they're not ready yet,” Trump said. “And we've cancelled a couple of meetings because I say they're not ready to make a deal.” No details were given about the meetings Trump said were cancelled.

When asked if he would respond with further tariffs if China were to hit back at the US with new tariffs of its own, Trump said, “Sure, absolutely.”

Washington has threatened to impose tariffs on another US$267 billion of Chinese imports if China retaliates for the recent levies and other measures the US has taken in the escalating trade war.

Last month, Washington imposed tariffs on nearly US$200 billion of Chinese imports and threatened to hit China with more levies if it retaliated. China then hit back with tariffs on about US$60 billion of US imports.

The two sides have been unable to resume talks since Beijing reportedly cancelled a new round of negotiations that had been set for late September in Washington between Liu He and Mnuchin.

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US officials have warned China that Trump will not engage in trade talks with Xi at the G20 summit if Beijing does not produce a detailed list of concessions, The Financial Times reported early this week.

Chinese officials have said they have such a list. However, they would not present it without being guaranteed “a stable political climate” in Washington, including a point person who would have a mandate to negotiate on behalf of the Trump administration, the Times reported.

Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the US in Washington, criticised the US negotiators for failing to show “sufficient goodwill” in the dispute, accusing them of continually changing their position.

“We don't know exactly what the US would want as priorities,” the ambassador said in an interview with NPR last week.

While Beijing is “ready to make a deal” and “make some compromise”, the US is trying to force China to accept unreasonable terms, Cui said.

“There's been some attempt on the US side to force something like, the US will get 100 per cent and China will get zero,” Cui said. “I don't think this is fair. I don't think this is possible.”