Meeting between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump would play ‘key role’ in easing tensions

Chinese ambassador to US Cui Tiankai is optimistic about a potential summit between the two leaders, but analysts do not expect a trade war breakthrough

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 11:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2018, 12:50am

China’s top US envoy said a meeting between presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump on the sidelines of next month’s G20 summit would play a “key, irreplaceable role” in easing tensions. But analysts were not optimistic about a breakthrough being reached on the trade war.

In an interview with Fox News Sunday, Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai said it was “so clear that such top-level communication [plays] a key role, irreplaceable role, in guiding the relationship forward”.

Over the weekend, Trump’s top economic officials gave mixed signals over whether the two leaders would meet during the G20 gathering in Buenos Aires, Argentina at the end of November. Trump, meanwhile, threatened to impose another round of tariffs on China in an interview with 60 Minutes on CBS, which also aired on Sunday.

“I was very honoured to be present at the meetings between the two presidents, both at Mar-a-Lago in April last year, and in Beijing last November,” Cui said in the Fox News interview taped on Friday. “There’s a good mutual understanding and good working relationship between the two. I hope and I’m sure this will continue.”

Xi and Trump’s meeting, if it happens, would be the first direct talks between the two leaders since a trade war between the world’s two largest economies began in July.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal cited officials from both countries as saying that the White House was proceeding with plans for Trump and Xi to meet at the G20 summit, but US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Saturday said no final decision had been made.

Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow on Sunday also told Fox News that the two leaders would “probably meet at the G20 summit”, though trade negotiations with China had so far been “unsatisfactory”.

Meanwhile, when asked if he wanted to push China’s economy into a depression, the US president told CBS “no”, before comparing the country’s stock market losses since the tariffs began to those in 1929 – the start of the Great Depression in the US.

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“I want them to negotiate a fair deal with us. I want them to open their markets like our markets are open,” Bloomberg quoted Trump as saying in the interview, adding that more tariffs “might” be on the cards.

In his interview, Chinese ambassador Cui admitted he was “confused” as to who in the US administration had the president’s ear on trade issues.

“Honestly, I’ve been talking to ambassadors of other countries in Washington, DC. This is also part of their problem,” Cui said. “They don’t know who is the final decision-maker. Of course, presumably, the president will take the final decision. But who is playing what role? Sometimes it could be very confusing.”

Cui also dismissed as “groundless” a suggestion by US Vice-President Mike Pence that China was attempting to meddle in US affairs. Pence made the remarks during a fiery speech on October 4, saying Beijing had created “a whole-of-government approach” to sway American public opinion – including spies, tariffs, coercive measures and a propaganda campaign.

US-China trade war is really a clash of civilisations and ideologies

“Whatever we are doing in terms of tariffs, it is just a response to the tariffs the US side has imposed on us. So it’s a response. If the US side could remove all the tariffs, we will drop all the tariffs. So this is tariffs for tariffs. It’s for nothing else,” Cui said.

He added that state-run China Daily was “just learning from American media” when it took out sponsored content in an Iowa newspaper and that it was “normal practice for all the media”.

“We never wanted a trade war, but if somebody started a trade war against us, we have to respond and defend our own interests,” Cui said.

Chinese analysts said it was still uncertain whether Xi and Trump would meet in Buenos Aires, and they did not expect a meaningful breakthrough any time soon.

Liu Weidong, a Sino-US affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing saw leaders’ summits as a tried and tested way to break an impasse, but Washington appeared to be more results-oriented.

“China hopes a meeting can reduce the differences … but the US is focused on [whether a meeting] can yield results,” Liu said, adding that many of Washington’s demands were still unacceptable to Beijing.

Trade war may undermine China’s whole basis for future development

Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said there had been no sign that the US would soften its stance.

“Even if they meet, based on the way this has been developing, there is only a slim chance of them calling a truce,” Shi said. “Chinese leaders may be thinking over whether it would be worthwhile to hold a summit that may achieve little.”

Lu Xiang, an international relations expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the US was still “holding a knife to China’s neck”.

“Unless there is some progress in the low-level negotiations and some breakthroughs can be expected, the chance of [Xi and Trump] meeting is not promising,” Lu said.