Donald Trump has set himself on a collision course with Chinese president Xi Jinping, saying the first meeting between the two leaders would be “very difficult”.
Xi will travel to the US next week and will have his first face to face meeting with Trump at Mar-a-lago, the US president’s country club in Florida, from April 6 to 7.
But just hours after the trip was officially announced, Trump used Twitter to slam China for its trade balance with the US, setting an ominous tone for what many call “the most important bilateral relationship in the world”.
“The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses. American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives,” Trump wrote in a pair of tweets.
Trump’s erratic behaviour is likely to cast a shadow over Xi’s visit, with US officials also criticising China over North Korea.
“This is a very dangerous way to start the meeting,” said Amy King, a senior lecturer at Australian National University and expert on Chinese foreign relations. “Trump needs to recognise there is very little he can do in terms of getting China to yield by threatening high tariffs, and they would simply have a backfire effect on the US economy.”
China is already looking for ways to retaliate against the US, King added, with Trump rhetoric “making the Chinese government pretty nervous”.
Chinese authorities have so far adopted a wait and see approach, showing restraint in the face of Trump’s comments since being elected president in November. While Trump has deployed tough rhetoric, criticising China over its currency policy, trade imbalance with the US and military expansion, he has taken few concrete actions since assuming office.
Indeed China’s immediate response to Trump’s latest tweet was diplomatic, with vice foreign minister Zheng Zeguang telling reporters on Friday morning that “both sides look forward to a successful meeting so that a correct direction can be set for the growth of bilateral relations.”
“China will continue to work with the United States to think creatively and keeping pushing for greater balance in China-US trade,” Zheng said.
Before Trump’s most recent tweets Lu Kang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said: “We believe that the fundamental and viable way to allow our economic and trade relations to better benefit the two peoples is to work together and enlarge the pie of common interests, rather than merely sticking to the argument that which side has taken a bigger share.
“Market choices have led us to the state in which we both have a stake in each other’s success.”
Observers believe the economy and North Korea will be at the top of the agenda when the two leaders meet next week.
Aside from rattling China, Trump’s heated rhetoric will worry allies in the region and beyond, as any economic or military confrontation would have far-reach and damaging results.
“Allies are nervous,” King said. “They want the US to be engaged in Asia to deal with the rise of China but they don’t want the US to be so involved it leads to confrontation with China.”
On the same day as Trump’s tweets, the US ambassador to the United Nations said China should do more to force North Korea to curb its nuclear program, amid reports of an imminent nuclear test.
“I know China says they’re worried about North Korea. I know China wants to see North Korea stop with the testing. Prove it. Prove it,” Nikki Haley said. “Look, can we change the way North Korea thinks? No. They’re not going to cave. China can, and that’s the part we want to look at.”
Trump previously slammed China for its perceived lack of diplomacy in dealing with North Korea.
“China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea,” then president-elect Trump wrote in January.
In a further sign that Trump could complicate his meeting with Xi, the US commerce department announced it was launching a review over whether China should be considered a market economy.
The review could be completed before the meeting, and China has been lobbying for years saying it should be classified as a market economy under World Trade Organisation rules. The status would limit steps the US could take on imposing anti-dumping taxes on Chinese-made products.
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