ANALYSIS — White House officials on Friday during a G-20 summit kept finding ways to note their many frustrations with China.
Even as President Donald Trump met with other world leaders during a busy day in Osaka, Japan, he and his top aides made clear his Saturday high-stakes meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping is, for the United States, the summit’s main event.
Washington and Beijing have been locked in a trade stalemate since Trump came into office on a populist wave, fueled in part by his promise to get tough on China and a laundry list of other countries he still contends have been “ripping off” the U.S. and treating it like a “piggybank.”
Friday included much White House message sending to Xi and his delegation. Trump made a subtle dig at Chinese firm Huawei when he talked up the importance of the “security of our 5G networks.” He issued a call for “open fair and market backed digital economy,” something he and his administration have made part of stalled trade talks with Xi’s government.
Then there was an official White House summary of his meeting with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro that noted they discussed “the risks associated with Chinese activities in the western hemisphere.”
To be sure, China is the White House’s main focus as Trump looks to revive trade talks he just months ago believed were headed for a deal he hoped to use as re-election fuel.
Here are three things to watch when Trump and Xi talk on Saturday:
Despite what the U.S. president describes as a strong friendship, he and Xi have been locked in a trade dispute for some time. They have levied import duties on their countries’ goods, with Trump threatening to implement around $300 billion in new tariffs in just weeks and Xi using his own tariffs to target agriculture- and manufacturing-heavy areas of the United States that broke for Trump in the 2016 election.
White House officials last week tamped down any expectations of a breakthrough Saturday in Osaka, saying their boss would be happy with “any outcome” from the Xi meeting. Reporters traveling with Trump observed several interactions between the friends and rivals on Friday as the G-20 formally kicked off, including a brief conversation as leaders posed for a group photo.
Later, however, the American president made clear those chats had yielded little progress.
Trump told reporters he made no promise to Xi that he will, if they cannot strike a deal Saturday, hold off on imposing new tariffs on additional goods from China. There have been, however, recent signs the two sides could announce something shy of a sweeping, paradigm-shifting deal when Trump and Xi emerge from their powwow.
The U.S. leader on Wednesday said he might implement his threatened new import fees indicated his long-threatened additional import fees at a 10 percent rate – not the 25 percent rate he has floated before.
White House officials, including the president, appeared Friday to be trying hard — in symbolism and words — to isolate Xi on a list of economic and security issues.
For instance, Trump met with both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But not just individually. He also met with Modi and Abe together. That’s notable. Republican and Democratic administrations for more than a decade have viewed both countries, with their large economies and growing militaries, as counterweights to China on opposite sides of the Indo-Pacific region.
U.S. officials later briefed reporters about the triple leader session — something they did not do after each meeting trump had Friday. One official noted the United States, India and Japan “promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” That amounts to diplomatic code that summarizes the Trump administration’s push for China to open its economy and shed what the White House views as overly aggressive and one-sided trade practices.
What’s more, the same official noted the three allies’ “strong naval cooperation” in the region, including a recent joint exercise in the South China Sea that Beijing has made aggressive claims over in recent years.
The U.S. delegation also tried — less convincingly, perhaps — to set China apart from other countries on Trump’s trade policies and use of tariffs. A senior administration official who also briefed reporters on the 20 leaders’ first session claimed the tone in the room about U.S. trade policy was “largely positive,” even though Trump has slapped steel and aluminum tariffs on most of the other countries represented and threatened others, like India and European Union members, with other import penalties unless they bow to his demands.
“China was less positive in its outlook, which was in stark contrast to basically everybody else,” the senior administration official said, not shining a spotlight on any other country. Asked what specifically gave off the impression that China is the least excited about Trump’s tariffs, the senior official replied: “They used the word ‘unilateralism.’ It was just a more negative tone, to be honest.” And it was noted that the “more negative tone” came from Xi himself.
Back home, much has been made about congressional Republicans’ consternation with the president’s trade approach because economic analysts say it is hitting their constituents with an election coming next November.
But some of the Democrats who want to capture their party’s nomination and take on Trump next year had plenty to say during a debate Thursday night about China and the current occupant of the Oval Office’s approach to the Asian power. That’s notable because Trump has repeatedly accused Xi of shutting down the trade negotiations because he thinks he could get a better deal out of one of the opposition party’s 24 candidates.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg: “This president is fixated on the China relationship as if all that mattered was the export balance on dishwashers. We’ve got a much bigger issue on our hands. … The biggest thing we’ve got to do is invest in our own domestic competitiveness.”
Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado: “In China, I think the president’s been right to push back on China, but he’s done it in completely the wrong way. We should mobilize the entire rest of the world who all have a shared interest in pushing back on China’s merchantilist trade policies.”
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (after being asked which global relationship he would try to “reset” first as president): “The first country I would go to, but I understand they have been cheating and stealing intellectual property, would be China. … Because if we are going to do deal with public health pandemics and we are going to deal with … all of the challenges of the globe, we’ve got to have relationships with everyone.”