When American President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping of China sit down for their first meeting next month in Palm Beach, Florida, they may benefit from the balmy breezes and tranquil views at the Mar-a-Lago resort: Relations between the United States and China are as complex and chilly as they have been since the early days of the Reagan administration.
The list of issues that could open a new rift between these two men is long, such as the deployment of US anti-missile batteries in South Korea, Mr Trump’s campaign threats of a trade war or escalating tensions over the South China Sea and Taiwan.
The debate over where to hold Mr Trump’s meeting with Mr Xi captures the underlying angst.
Chinese officials pushed for an invitation to Mr Trump’s private resort, US officials said, because it would be more relaxed and informal than a summit meeting at the White House.
Equally important, it would reduce the pressure on the two leaders to produce any agreements, which in the current environment is viewed as unrealistic.
Inside the Trump administration, the visit lays bare the unsettled nature of policy towards China. The White House is divided into camps, with a fiercely ideological, anti-China faction vying against more pragmatic elements.
Mr Trump’s son-in-law, Mr Jared Kushner, has emerged as an influential, moderating voice. He is heavily involved in planning the presidential visit, a senior official said, and took part in a National Security Council (NSC) meeting on Monday in which North Korea and China were discussed.
While Mar-a-Lago appears set as the meeting site, White House officials said the agenda for the meeting was still being worked out.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to meet the Chinese President this week in Beijing to determine the major priorities, after which the two sides will announce the visit — probably the most closely watched so far of Mr Trump’s young presidency.
On Monday, the White House Press Secretary, Mr Sean Spicer, underscored the challenges. The meeting, he said, would “help defuse tensions over North Korea”. China has bitterly protested the deployment of a US system, officially called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad), designed to help South Korea shoot down incoming North Korean missiles.
For all the Chinese complaints, several experts said the anti-missile system would probably be a temporary irritant compared with looming clashes over trade and territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The Trump administration is also expected to sell Taiwan a robust package of weapons, a gesture that reliably infuriates China.
This time, a sale would revive memories of Mr Trump’s unorthodox decision to take a phone call from Taiwan’s President and publicly question the “One China” policy, which undergirds the US-China relationship.
“The differences between China and the United States are deeper than during the first years of the Clinton or the Reagan administrations, which were historically difficult periods,” said Mr Evan Medeiros, who served as senior director for Asian affairs during the Obama administration. “It’s a big agenda, and it’s a very competitive agenda.”
Mr Medeiros said domestic political pressures on both sides complicated the situation.
Mr Xi is preparing for the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party later this year, at which he hopes to tighten his grip on power. Mr Trump ran for the presidency on a stridently anti-China platform, accusing the Chinese, wrongly, of manipulating their currency, and threatening to impose a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese imports.
The architects of that policy — Mr Stephen Bannon, the President’s chief strategist, and Mr Peter Navarro, the director of the National Trade Council — wield sizeable influence in the White House, though neither has made his voice heard on China, at least publicly.
Mr Navarro, a former professor of economics at the University of California, Irvine, wrote books with titles including The Coming China Wars and Death by China.
In a recent speech to the National Association of Business Economists, he asked: “How come a Chinese company can set up production on US soil and sell freely into our market when a US company producing on Chinese soil must take on a 50 per cent joint venture Chinese partner — and run the very real risk of losing its intellectual property?”
In an interview, however, Mr Navarro declined to discuss the evolving China policy, saying it was still “top secret”.
Mr Bannon, who served in the navy in Asia, once warned on his radio show: “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years. There’s no doubt about that. They’re taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face — and you understand how important face is — and say it’s an ancient territorial sea.”
Since entering the White House, however, Mr Bannon has also been low-key on China. He did not take part in the NSC meeting on North Korea, though a much-noted provision of Mr Trump’s presidential memorandum on the organisation of the council guarantees him a seat at principals committee meetings.
While Mr Bannon and Mr Navarro have been less vocal than some outsiders expected, Mr Kushner has emerged as a central player. He helped orchestrate a fence-mending phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Xi last month, in which Mr Trump pledged to abide by “One China”, the four-decade-old policy under which the US recognised a single Chinese government in Beijing and severed its diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Mr Kushner and his wife, Ms Ivanka Trump, have curried favour with China’s Ambassador to the US, Mr Cui Tiankai. Ms Trump and her daughter, Arabella, attended a reception at the Chinese embassy to celebrate Chinese New Year. Mr Kushner is conferring with Mr Cui about the upcoming visit.
On Monday at the NSC meeting, there was a vivid illustration of Mr Kushner’s unusual role. He was seated at the table in the Situation Room when General Joseph F Dunford Jr, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, walked in.
Seeing no chairs open, Gen Dunford headed for the backbenches, according to two witnesses. Mr Kushner, they said, quickly offered his chair to Gen Dunford, and took a seat along the wall.
Mr Kushner’s involvement in China policy is a delicate situation because he has been pursuing a Chinese company, Anbang Insurance Group, to invest in the redevelopment of 666 Fifth Ave, a skyscraper that is the flagship of his family’s real estate company. On Monday, Bloomberg News reported that Anbang had agreed to invest more than US$400 million (S$565 million).
North Korea will be an early test of the administration’s approach. The White House reacted coolly to a Chinese proposal that the North Koreans halt missile tests in return for the US and South Korea agreeing to suspend joint military exercises viewed as important by both allies.
Experts predicted Mr Xi would reiterate that proposal with Mr Trump and tell him that the ball is now in America’s court.
“Divisions over China are nothing new,” said Mr Michael J Green, who was senior director for Asia in the George W Bush administration. “But they are more extreme right now, because the premises of this administration are more extreme and unilateralist.” THE NEW YORK TIMES
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mark Landler is a White House correspondent for The New York Times.