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China-US relations

Shinzo Abe’s advice to Xi Jinping on talking tariffs with Donald Trump at their G20 trade war dinner

  • The Japanese leader had one key suggestion for the Chinese president in Buenos Aires
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 December, 2018, 6:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 December, 2018, 9:18am

When Chinese President Xi Jinping sat across the table from his US counterpart Donald Trump in Argentina last weekend, he exuded quiet confidence and impressed the Americans with a detailed presentation that led to a truce in the trade war between the two countries.

But a month earlier at a dinner in Beijing with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Chinese leader was less certain about what would come from the discussions in Buenos Aires.

During the dinner, Xi, who has forged a new-found friendship with Abe after years of strained relations between Beijing and Tokyo, asked the Japanese leader for advice before he set off for the Argentine capital, according to a source familiar with the conversation.

“You should talk to him,” replied Abe, encouraging Xi to engage in direct conversations with Trump, knowing that he respects the Chinese leader.

Abe is hardly a surprising source for counsel on dealing with the erratic Trump.

The Japanese leader is known for investing heavily in building a close relationship with the US president through frequent meetings and their mutual love of golf.

Abe was the first foreign leader to meet Trump, flying to New York to see the new American president after his win at the 2016 election.

‘A big leap forward’: Donald Trump praises talks with Xi Jinping as China readies for trade mission

At the Group of 20 summit on Friday, Abe again turned on the charm, congratulating Trump on his “historic victory” in the US midterm elections.

For Abe, direct discussions between leaders is the best way to resolve trade disputes.

And for Tokyo, progress on US-China trade talks means wider access to the Chinese market for foreign firms, including those from Japan.

So during the dinner in October, the Japanese leader also brought up issues such as Beijing’s subsidies for state-owned enterprises and intellectual property rights, hoping that China could do more, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. These issues are also among the Trump administration’s top concerns about China.

Six key things Xi Jinping and Donald Trump discussed at G20 summit dinner

Trump has so far preferred a bilateral approach in dealing with China, but Beijing has also been keen to ensure that American partners like the European Union, Canada, Australia and Japan do not team up with the US to pressure China on what they see as unfair trade practices and barriers to market access.

So just days before the high-stakes meeting with Trump, Beijing made a small goodwill gesture to Tokyo by lifting its import ban on rice from the Japanese prefecture of Niigata, one of 10 areas covered by a sweeping food ban in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

But one diplomatic insider said the Japanese side was not satisfied with the “minuscule move”, given that restrictions remained on other food and drinks such as sake from all 10 prefectures.

“There are strong views in Japan that if China is sincere about rapprochement with Japan, while respecting relevant World Trade Organisation rules based on scientific evidence, China should significantly speed up the process towards lifting the restrictions against Japanese goods and products,” the source said.