Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Politics & Government

What's Next For U.S.-China Relations


In a high-stakes game of nuclear diplomacy, President Trump has dealt another wild card. As he boarded a helicopter today, the president told reporters that a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which he canceled only yesterday, could soon be back on.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're talking to them now. They very much want to do it. We'd like to do it. We're going to see what happens.

CORNISH: The negotiations are being closely watched by North Korea's neighbors. That includes China, which is set to begin another round of trade talks with the Trump administration next week. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Trump's renewed interest in the nuclear summit comes in response to a statement from North Korea that the president calls warm and productive. He dismissed a suggestion from a reporter that Pyongyang is simply playing games.


TRUMP: Everybody plays games. You know that.

HORSLEY: In the president's mind that includes Chinese President Xi Jinping. Earlier this week, Trump suggested it was Xi who helped put the brakes on North Korea's diplomatic outreach to preserve China's leverage in trade talks with the U.S.


TRUMP: President Xi is a world-class poker player.

YUN SUN: By saying that, I think President Trump was also acknowledging that he himself is also a poker player. So now he has met his match.

HORSLEY: Yun Sun directs the China Program at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.

YUN: Both are playing poker. For example, China was playing the North Korea card. U.S. was playing the trade card.

HORSLEY: The Trump administration has been trying to crack down on what it sees as China's unfair trading practices. But the president acknowledges he's willing to cut China some slack on trade in exchange for cooperation with North Korea. Next week, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross travels to China for the next round of trade talks with Beijing. Michael Green, who was an Asia policy expert in the Bush administration, says the U.S. should have a strong hand since many other countries share its complaints about China. But Green says the U.S. has alienated many of the other players around the table by threatening tariffs on steel, aluminum and just this week automobiles.

MICHAEL GREEN: There are far more countries who are suffering from Chinese trade practices than U.S. trade practices and therefore lots of natural allies. But the leverage isn't really with the U.S. right now because the U.S. has not lined up its internal ducks. And our allies are not onboard because of the steel and aluminum and car tariffs that are now on the table.

HORSLEY: David Dollar of the Brookings Institution says the administration is also divided internally over what the rules of the game should be. Hard-liners in the White House want to see China fundamentally change the way it deals with U.S. companies and handles intellectual property. But others seem content with more modest goals like boosting sales of farm products and natural gas.

DAVID DOLLAR: I think they're confusing the Chinese by raising too many different issues at once and not being - the Chinese feel like they're not clear about the priorities. And the Chinese respond in a way that's easy - we'll buy more soy beans.

HORSLEY: This week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the trade war between the U.S. and China had been placed on hold in exchange for China's willingness to buy more soybeans and other American products. But Dollar says those additional U.S. exports will be dwarfed by growing imports from China.

DOLLAR: Two-thirds of these products are consumer products like televisions and smartphones, computers. You know, people want these things, so it's not a bad thing. But it just happens to be the math that this deficit is not going to go down in the foreseeable future.

HORSLEY: In fact, the U.S. trade deficit with China, which Trump frequently complains about, actually grew by some $15 billion in the first three months of the year. The stakes for both trade and nuclear diplomacy are high, and for the moment at least, China's Xi Jinping appears to be dealing the cards. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.