Shanghai, China – A trade deficit that US President Donald Trump has called “embarrassing” and the increasing threat posed by North Korea will be atop the agenda on his first official visit to Beijing on Wednesday.
Trump has embarked on a 12-day trip to the Asia-Pacific and will arrive in China just two weeks after the end of the 19th Communist Party congress, which saw President Xi Jinping consolidate his power.
Describing Trump’s tour as a “historic opportunity”, China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, said the “state visit-plus” will include a banquet, a military honour guard, and other “special arrangements”. While the Chinese government is expected to give Trump lavish treatment, many Chinese are less excited about his visit.
“Lots of Chinese people don’t like Trump, and he doesn’t like us,” Zhang Xing, a 24-year-old woman who works for a Spanish trading company and is originally from Xi’an, home of China’s famous terracotta army and capital of Shaanxi province in central China, told Al Jazeera.
Zhang and many others interviewed by Al Jazeera vividly recalled Trump’s anti-China rhetoric during the presidential campaign, but also said they believed overall relations between the two world powers will continue to improve, partly because the US now relies on China’s support to rein in North Korea – one of the main reasons for the talks.
Reining in Kim
On Tuesday in South Korea, Trump made rare conciliatory comments towards the North, inviting officials to “come to the table” to negotiate over its nuclear weapons. However, he also underscored the US’ “unparalleled” military strength that he would unleash “if need be”.
Earlier this year, Pyongyang’s nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests led the UN Security Council to unanimously approve two rounds of sanctions. So far, China’s support has proven vital for the council, but also for North Korea.
Beijing is traditionally seen as the pariah state’s closest ally and its most important trade partner. In 2016, 90 percent of Pyongyang’s trade was with China, but the nuclear and missile tests have angered its neighbour.
“China has made clear if America starts the war, they will stand by North Korea – but not if North Korea starts it,” said Alexander Gillespie, a senior lecturer in international law at New Zealand’s Waikato University.
Some experts believe that Xi is the key to solving the crisis – the only one Kim, who has had some of his closest allies and family members assassinated, will listen to. Others, however, say Xi’s influence is overrated.
“Xi is – in my opinion – the most powerful man in the world, but I doubt that means much to Kim,” Gillespie said. Regardless of whether Kim listens to Xi, Trump will need China’s support if he wants to ramp up UN sanctions.
Ambassador Cui said the country was taking measures to implement the recent set of sanctions, despite “high costs for China itself”. In September, China’s imports from North Korea dropped by about 38 percent compared to August.
But Cui also underlined that solving the issue wasn’t up to China.
“It is clear that if only China is making efforts, while others are doing things that could lead to escalation of tensions, this issue would not be solved, and it would become even more difficult, and the end result would hurt everybody’s interest,” he said.
Trump previously threatened to unleash “fire and fury” and to “totally destroy” North Korea.
Many Chinese seem to agree with their ambassador to the US, saying despite Trump’s hopes, the key to solving the issue does not lie with China.
“We can try to influence North Korea a little bit, but in the end it comes down to the US,” said Deng Xianchuan, a 31-year-old chemical engineer from southwest China’s Sichuan province.
The issue was created by the US and North Korea, he said, while China was merely an outsider.
Rectifying trade practices
White House staff have said Trump will address his country’s deficit with the world’s second-largest economy.
Before his departure, Trump described the trade deficit with China as “through the roof” saying it was “so big and bad that it’s embarrassing saying what the number is”.
The US trade deficit for goods totaled $347bn last year. China also holds about one-third of the US’ global debt.
The US and other countries have frequently accused China of unfair trade practices, such as high import tariffs that have put Chinese companies at an advantage.
China is now the world’s second-largest consumer market after the US, and its rapidly growing and increasingly wealthy middle class is eager to buy western goods.
Last week, China’s Commerce Ministry already showed a sign of goodwill when it announced it will lower tariffs on consumer products and improve import financing.
China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying defended the country’s trade surplus at a daily briefing in Beijing, saying it was an unintentional result of the way the world economy works.
“We have never intentionally pursued a trade surplus. The current pattern of China’s trade cooperation with other countries, including the US, is determined by the market,” Hua said.
She added China was willing to talk about the surplus to “ensure the sound and steady growth of bilateral trade and economic ties”.
Ruigang Zheng, who works in real estate in Beijing and studied at Penn State, said he expects the meeting’s trade talks to be more productive than those focused on North Korea.
“Trump respects money,” the 46-year-old said. “For this meeting, he will bring a lot of businessmen and they’ll close a lot of deals, and the US will get a lot of money. Trump will be happy,” said Zheng.
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