By Chang Jae-soon
WASHINGTON, April 5 (Yonhap) -- U.S. President Donald Trump heads into crucial first meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping starting Thursday in a much-hyped showdown that could actually yield little on key contentious security issues like North Korea.
In the run-up to the meetings at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Trump spoke a lot about what he's going to be discussing with Xi while picking North Korea and trade as the two most important issues and predicting that the talks will be "very difficult."
"I think we're going to have a very interesting talk," Trump said during a townhall with business CEOs Tuesday as he voiced determination to reduce a massive trade deficit with China. "We're going to talk about a lot of things, including, of course, North Korea. And that's really a humanity problem. So we're going to be talking about that also."
North Korea's latest missile launch on Tuesday has added to the urgency of the problem.
Trump said in an interview with the Financial Times published Sunday that China should help with the problem by using the "great influence" it has over Pyongyang, warning that if it doesn't, the U.S. will solve the problem on its own, and that "won't be good for anyone."
Trump also said he will use trade as an incentive for China to take action on the North.
The goal sounds ambitious and the strategy sounds tough, but experts say China is unlikely to agree to do what it has refused to do for decades: fully exercising its leverage as the North's main provider of food and energy to rein in the provocative regime.
"The North Korea nuclear problem is at the top of the Trump-Xi agenda, and Trump may try to link it to trade and threaten to sanction Chinese banks facilitating North Korean entities, but China is unlikely to agree to put more pressure on North Korea," said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Xi could express a willingness to accept secondary sanctions on Chinese banks or firms that facilitate North Korean entities, but most of these are smaller, regional banks or front companies, which won't cause any great pain to China, Manning said.
"This would be the best case," he said. "It is equally possible Trump will push China to 'solve' North Korea and Xi will push back, blaming the U.S. for threatening the regime and pushing 'regime change.' This is the well-known blame game that goes around in circles and goes nowhere."
Instead, Xi is expected to offer a package of "sweeteners" that Trump can tweet as victories, mostly promises to increase Chinese investment and job creation in the U.S., which could rival or surpass what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered during his visit to the U.S.
"Xi will arrive at Mar-a-Lago with a phalanx of Chinese businessmen willing to invest massively in U.S. infrastructure projects and economic cooperation," Manning said. "But unless China is prepared to reverse the trend of closing off the Chinese economy to foreign investment and commit to an agenda of reciprocity, the summit will likely be more important in establishing a rapport between the two leaders."
Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum, a program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), also said that differences between the U.S. and China over how to deal with the North are too wide to narrow.
"The Trump administration believes Beijing has failed to exercise the leverage that it has over Pyongyang, casting China as part of the problem rather than part of the solution," Glosserman said in the forum's newsletter. "China believes that it has done all it can, that the solution lies in direct talks between the US and North Korea and that tough talk of preemption and military options is destabilizing."
Glosserman said that the upcoming summit could actually make relations worse.
The summit will also be watched closely as to whether the U.S. stands up to China for bullying South Korea for hosting the U.S. THAAD missile defense system designed to defend better against ever-growing missile threats from North Korea.
Just days before the meetings, a bipartisan group of 26 U.S. senators sent a joint letter urging Trump to use the summit with Xi to bring an end to Beijing's retaliatory measures in an attempt to pressure Seoul to scrap the decision to have a THAAD battery.
But analysts don't expect much from the meeting.
"On THAAD, I expect they will agree to disagree. The problem for the U.S. is that China knows THAAD does not compromise their nuclear deterrent. They are worried that THAAD is just one piece of a larger U.S. strategy to neutralize their nuclear forces," Manning said. "But the US and ROK can't not prove a negative to disprove China's conspiracy theory."
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