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Democrats Want Trump to Back up Message on China

As Trump-Xi summit set to begin, Senate Democrats lay down markers

The flags of the United States and China in Washington in 2014. The flags will be on display at President Trump’s Florida golf resort Thursday and Friday as he hosts his Chinese counterpart. (Wikiemedia Commons)
The flags of the United States and China in Washington in 2014. The flags will be on display at President Trump’s Florida golf resort Thursday and Friday as he hosts his Chinese counterpart. (Wikiemedia Commons)

President Donald Trump faces his first true foreign policy challenge when he hosts his Chinese counterpart during a two-day summit, testing whether he can back up his tough talk about Xi Jinping and the Asian power.

Senior Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., are pressing Trump to let Xi know he intends to live up to his bold campaign promises. The Senate Democratic leader on Wednesday pointedly said Trump merely “talks a good game” — so far — on all matters China.

When the new U.S. diplomat in chief met with major world leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and King Abdullah II of Jordan, he was face to face with leaders whose countries interests mostly align with those of the United States.

That will not be the case on Thursday and Friday when Trump and Xi hold a series of high-stakes meetings at the American president’s Mar-a-Lago golf resort in Palm Beach, Fla. On issues ranging from trade to Asia-Pacific security to climate and environmental issues to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, the two leaders will find plenty of thorny ground.

And, very likely, ample reasons to disagree during a summit that is designed as much as a chance for the two leaders to get to know each other as it is for them to steer the countries they lead clear of what some say is an inevitable conflict.

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One is Graham Allison, director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, who penned a recent op-ed with this ominous paragraph: “It may not be apparent when President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet beneath the towering palms and crystal chandeliers at Mar-a-Lago this coming week, but the nations they lead are on a collision course for war.”

A big reason, Allison, who has written book on the same subject, has concluded this is because “an irresistibly rising China is challenging the United States’ accustomed dominance.”

“As Thucydides explained about the war that destroyed the two great city states of ancient Greece, ‘It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable,‘” Allison wrote in the op-ed.

But when Xi sits down with Trump, he will find a new kind of American president.

Where his recent predecessors acknowledged and tried to bolster the United States’ global power and influence, the populist candidate-turned-president on Tuesday delivered a revealing — and stunning — statement that likely will alter the U.S.-China relationships and talks between its leaders as long as he is president.

“I’m not — and I don’t want to be — the president of the world. I’m the president of the United States. And from now on, it’s going to be America first,” Trump told a group of building union members at a conference in Washington on Tuesday. “We’re going to bring back our jobs, and yes, we’re going to bring back the American dream.”

The line about jobs was a not-so-subtle jab at Xi and the Chinese government just two days before their summit. Candidate Trump consistently hammered China on the campaign trail over its trade practices, currency policies, and vowed to bring back jobs and industries that long ago were moved to the Asian country.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” Trump said of Xi. “But we have to do better, because our [trade] deficit with China, as you know, [is] $504 billion.” (The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative put that figure at $336.2 billion in 2015.)

Trump intends to tell Xi face to face in a “candid” way that he is “concerned” about a trade imbalance he has concluded hinders American companies, a senior Trump administration official told reporters Tuesday.

The U.S.-China trade relationship should be fair, balanced and based on a principle of reciprocity, the senior administration official said, summarizing Trump’s planned message to Xi.

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Senior administration officials told reporters to not expect Trump and Xi to resolve any issues or announce any major progress on the issues they will discuss. The purpose of the summit is for them to get to know each other and establish a “framework” from which future talks will begin.

Senate Democrats on Wednesday pressed Trump to keep his campaign promises to be tougher on China than his predecessors when it comes to trade matters.

“The eyes of American workers are upon you as you meet with President Xi,” Schumer told reporters. “Stand up for them. You haven’t so far in any way.

“He talks a good game,” Schumer said of Trump. “He signs a couple of executive orders that mean nothing. He hasn’t saved … one job that China is stealing.”

Schumer also called on Trump to label China as a currency manipulator.

“That would send a shot across the bow to the Chinese that it’s not business as usual, they can’t keep taking advantage of our country as, frankly, they did under both President Bush and President Obama,” Schumer said.

Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania joined Schumer at the press conference after joining six other Democrats from steel-producing states in sending a letter to Trump Wednesday morning urging him to address Chinese companies flooding the steel market.

“We hope that you will continue to strongly enforce our trade laws,” the eight Democrats wrote. “In addition to building on the progress that has been made thus far, we respectfully urge you to make it clear to President Xi that Chinese steel dumping and illegal trade practices are unacceptable.”

North Korea’s nuclear arms and ballistic missile programs were set to be on what appears a very informal agenda. But after Pyongyang test-fired a missile on Tuesday — the fourth since Trump took office — what to do about the unruly young leader of that country, Kim Jong Un, could rival trade as the top issue Trump and Xi discuss.

The Trump administration has concluded the situation with North Korea is “urgent” because “the clock is running out” on the time before it has effective nuclear arms, the senior administration official said.

The official then delivered what seemed perhaps the most blunt warning a U.S. administration has sent to a North Korean leader: “The clock has now run out and all options are on the table for us.”

Hours later, after the missile test, the Trump administration continued ramping up its rhetoric toward Kim’s regime. “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a terse statement. “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”

Trump intends to press Xi to use trade as leverage against North Korea, saying its “considerable” trade with North Korea could help convince Pyongyang to end its nuclear and missile ambitions, the senior official said.

Schumer dismissed the notion that Trump may feel he cannot be as tough on trade because he needs China to cooperate on curbing North Korea’s nuclear program.

“This is the story of why China has taken advantage of us economically forever, because every time there’s some geopolitical consideration — China’s done nothing on North Korea,” Schumer said. “The way to get them to do something on North Korea is to hit them in their bread basket, where it hurts.”

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.

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