West Palm Beach (United States) (AFP) – Chinese President Xi Jinping touched down in Florida Thursday for a first face-to-face meeting with President Donald Trump, hoping that a basket full of “tweetable” deals will help avoid a public clash.
Xi was greeted at Palm Beach airport by a red carpet, military honor guard, fluttering Chinese and American flags and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Trump had yet to arrive to Florida, but the pair will gather later at his Mar-a-Lago resort — which the US president likes to call the “Winter White House” — for what promises to be a masterclass in studied informality.
Matt Pottinger, the White House Asia expert tasked with planning the high-stakes superpower summit, promised a “relaxed interaction” despite a backdrop of tensions over trade and North Korea.
“Spouses will be there” said Pottinger, indicating the leaders will be joined Thursday evening by US first lady and former model Melania Trump and Peng Liyuan — a celebrated folk singer who was once more famous than her husband.
The group will “have an opportunity to have tea together, meet some of their senior cabinet officials, so to speak, on both sides, and have a dinner,” Pottinger added.
Talks will continue up to a working lunch on Friday.
Amid concerns about security and public perceptions, officials said Xi and his wife will not be staying at Mar-a-Lago, but at a resort and spa a short drive down the palm-fringed coast that is, for now, watched by snipers, tactical units and a coastguard cutter.
The carefully choreographed dinners and displays of bonhomie mask an almost palpable anxiety about how the meeting will go.
– Peace offerings –
No one — neither diplomats nor aides — can be sure what will happen when the most powerful Chinese leader in a generation meets a mercurial American president who has been in office less than 100 days and is capable of unraveling the most carefully-laid plans with a single 140-character tweet.
For that reason Xi is arriving with a gift-basket of “tweetable deliverables”, sources say, peace offerings on Trump’s signature issues — trade and jobs — that he hopes will smooth over a relationship that began on shaky ground following disagreements over Taiwan.
Top of the list, according to a source briefed on Xi’s plans, will be a package of Chinese investments aimed at creating more than 700,000 American jobs — the number pledged to Trump by China’s regional rival Japan, during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s February Mar-a-Lago visit.
There may also be offers to further open China’s auto and agricultural markets, insiders say, and even some concessions on Chinese banks’ transactions with North Korea, a vital financial lifeline for the country.
In return, Xi hopes to get assurances from Trump on punitive tariffs and that an American arms sale to Taiwan will be delayed, at least until after a major Communist Party meeting later this year.
Trump’s position on the democratically-ruled Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province, has been a major irritant in the Sino-US relationship since the billionaire politician accepted a protocol-breaking phone call from the Taiwanese president after his election victory.
– All politics is local –
The stakes, both domestic and international, are high.
Disagreements over approaches to North Korea or bilateral trade could, if mishandled, destabilize North East Asia or tank the global economy.
On the domestic political front, Xi is heading into a critical year. Ahead of a party congress that could cement his grip on power for years to come, he needs to show that he can deal with the US leader as an equal.
He “cannot afford to lose face while China aspires to be the new center of gravity for the world order,” China political analyst Willy Lam told AFP.
Meanwhile, Trump — who is reeling from legislative defeats, low approval ratings and unrelenting scandals — desperately needs a win.
He may not have much room to maneuver, however, with a country he has castigated for “stealing” American jobs and doing “little” to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program.
Even though the two leaders “want to project themselves as very forceful, very decisive and also getting the best for the benefit of their own countries, they are also anxious not to get into difficult negotiating positions,” according to Lam.
On the US side, however, North Korea will likely be on the top of the agenda following a provocative missile launch Wednesday — barely 48 hours before the summit was due to start.
– Different interests –
The Trump White House worries Pyongyang is just months away from marrying nuclear and long-range missile technology and putting the west coast of the United States within striking distance.
The tough-talking new president has repeatedly and very publicly indicated his openness to military action.
While Beijing has condemned the missile tests, it has hesitated to take dramatic action against Pyongyang, fearing that the country’s collapse would generate a flood of refugees across its borders and leave the US military on its doorstep.
But coming to an agreement on the issue will not be easy, according to Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“I don’t think they’re talking about solutions… at the end of the day, their interests are not really the same as the United States’.”