WASHINGTON • The White House is considering excluding trade from the agenda of a meeting between US President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping next month but likely won’t cancel it altogether, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Some of Trump’s trade advisors don’t want to engage with China over trade until Beijing shows it’s serious about addressing the US’ list of negotiating demands, according to one of the people, who declined to be identified because the discussions aren’t public.
Even if trade is left off the official agenda, the discussion may be hard to avoid between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies who are locked in a tariff war that’s crimping their economies. Trump also has a history of cutting vague deals on the fly with fellow world leaders.
White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow (picture) last Tuesday said the two presidents would meet “for a bit” at the Group of 20 (G-20) leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The hope is “the two presidents agree on some basic principles”, said Kudlow, who warned that he wouldn’t predict that outcome.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last Thursday said a meeting between Trump and Xi at the Nov 30-Dec 1 summit was still in the planning stages. “We’ll keep you guys posted as we finalise those plans,” she told Bloomberg.
Still, another official pushed back against the notion that excluding trade from the agenda is being seriously considered, saying they weren’t aware of any discussion of the idea at the top level.
Some in the administration are also preparing for the possibility that Trump and Xi could agree on a ceasefire of sorts during their G-20 meeting. One possibility: Delaying an increase in tariffs now planned for January.
Two other people familiar with the matter said the Trump administration is asking China for a number of commitments, including on joint efforts to make progress on securing a disarmament deal with North Korea as a pre-condition for the Trump-Xi meeting.
The administration has been growing increasingly frustrated with what it sees as stonewalling by Beijing. “China has not responded positively to any of our asks,” Kudlow, the head of Trump’s National Economic Council, said in a speech in Detroit last week.
One of the people said the administration in May presented Beijing with a list of 52 separate actions that it wanted to see. Chinese officials had since split that into a list of 142 separate potential measures they could take, but haven’t yet presented them to US officials.
At the very least, the administration wanted Chinese officials to brief the administration on what they were prepared to do before it agreed to discussions between Xi and Trump at the G-20.
Chinese officials, meanwhile, continue to complain that they aren’t sure who they should be working with in the Trump administration.
After reaching deals with Cabinet level officials such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross only to see them rejected by Trump, officials in Beijing say they are wary of doing the same again.
Officials in Beijing are also now seeking US assurances that any concessions they make will be linked to the lifting of tariffs by the Trump administration, said Craig Allen, president of the US-China Business Council, who led a delegation that met with senior Chinese officials earlier this month.
Allen said senior Chinese officials recognised the need to address US concerns over intellectual property theft and other issues. Xi also had a number of public speeches before the G-20 scheduled at which he could send a public message to Trump, starting with a Nov 5-10 “import fair” in Shanghai to which the government has invited delegations from around the world including the US.
“There is a window of opportunity right now leading up to the meeting between the two presidents,” Allen said. He cautioned, however, that ending an impasse in talks “will require one of the governments to move first”.
Inside the Trump administration, China hawks such as US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer still want Washington to apply more pressure on Beijing. Trump himself has said that he doesn’t believe that the time is right yet for a deal with China.
The US this year has already imposed tariffs on US$250 billion (RM1.05 trillion) in trade with China.
Ten percent tariffs on US$200 billion in trade that took effect in September are due to increase to 25% on Jan 1.
Trump has also threatened to impose tariffs on the remaining goods imports from China, which last year were worth US$506 billion.
“Billions of dollars are, and will be, coming into US coffers because of Tariffs,” Trump tweeted last Tuesday.
“If a country won’t give us a fair Trade Deal, we will institute Tariffs on them. Used or not, jobs and businesses will be created. US respected again!”