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Chinese President Xi Jinping Positions Himself As The Anti-Trump


The summit that starts today between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping brings together two very different leaders. Each one has an agenda, and each one has a big audience to please. For more on what's at stake for both leaders, we talked to John Pomfret, who wrote a book about U.S.-China relations since the 1700s. And I asked him what he expects from this summit.

JOHN POMFRET: Well, they have a lot on their plate...



POMFRET: ...North Korea being probably the first one. But the issue, though, right now is - my sense is this summit actually, from my perspective, is a little premature because the Chinese basically know what they want from the United States, and all their experts have been in place for years, not weeks. And the Trump administration has basically a skeleton staff, and so it's walking into this summit with no clear strategy about how to confront the challenge from China.

Summits have a tendency to concentrate the minds of people in power, and so clearly there's lots of people on the administration doing their homework. But they don't have many people right now or who know much about China, and so I worry. As we walk into this, you get the situation where the Chinese know what they want, and Trump basically has a list of a few wants but with no clear strategy about how to go about getting it.

MCEVERS: What is it the Chinese want?

POMFRET: Well, the Chinese - first, they want the United States to recognize that China is the great regional power of Asia. And so they have this formulation, the new great power relationship, which basically is code word for seeding the Western Pacific to China. And the fact that they maneuvered Secretary of State Rex Tillerson into using their verbiage in Beijing is an example of that basically saying no conflict, recognition of each other's core interests, this type of stuff.


For the Chinese, it's a big victory because they then can turn around and sell that to the rest of Asia, say, see; you know, the Americans accept this new great power relationship; you've got to listen to us. And that doesn't bode well for the future, really.

MCEVERS: I mean it sounds like your advice would have been, don't have this summit at all. Like, wait and have it later. But it's happening. And how important is it?

POMFRET: It's important for both sides for very different reasons. It's important for Trump because clearly he needs a political victory 'cause he's, you know, had a rough couple of weeks. It's important for Xi Jinping because the 19th Party Congress is coming around the corner in the fall of this year, and he needs to appear very presidential. He needs to appear like a global statesman, and he needs to ensure that U.S.-China relations don't go off the rails because the general secretary of the communist party - he's like - he's the curator. He's the caretaker of the relationship.

But the interesting thing is how the summit's being framed in China. I mean the Chinese actually really like Trump a lot, and Ivanka Trump is called the goddess in China. And they like Trump a lot because they like his showmanship, his sort of carnival barker thing. I mean they really respond to that.

But the Chinese government has framed the summit. When the Xinhua News Agency had its official announcement of the summit, they basically said President Xi will be going to Finland, which - he's coming to the United States from Finland. But then it said basically, then, by the way, he'll be dropping by the United States to visit with President Trump after that.

So there's the sense that America has become, in a way, just another country for the Chinese. Now, the reality of course is the Chinese don't look at it like that, but they're framing it to their people as if, well, we're the big boys now, and we're going to go visit the outer provinces, including Finland and America. And...

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Wow. We'll just stop by.

POMFRET: We'll just stop by.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

POMFRET: And that's, like, an interesting signaling to their people that, you know, we're becoming increasingly the big dog, and we should get used to it. And I think that's another thing that he looks to take from this. He wants to appear not only presidential but, in a way, bigger than the Donald, and that's going to be an interesting thing - how he works that and how it's of course broadcast back to China.

MCEVERS: John Pomfret is the author of the book "The Beautiful Country And The Middle Kingdom: America And China, 1776 To The Present." Thank you so much.

POMFRET: Thank you, Kelly. Nice to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.