US President Donald Trump met Chinese Vice-Premier Liu Yandong on Thursday, as officials from both nations intensify their discussions ahead of Trump’s visit to China.
The increased diplomatic activity comes as both sides prepare themselves for a reset in their relationship following a reshuffle of the leadership in Beijing in October and Trump’s visit the following month.
In the meeting with Liu, Trump said it was important to strengthen the people-to-people exchanges with China, adding that he was looking forward to his visit to Beijing and believed it would be “very successful”.
Liu was visiting the United States to chair the first round of US-China Social and Cultural Dialogues with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was due to arrive in Beijing on Friday.
Liu said in her meeting with Tillerson that China and the US should focus on cooperation and properly manage their differences to ensure a stable development of their bilateral ties.
Tillerson will meet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councillor Yang Jiechi on Saturday.
Before flying to Beijing, Tillerson said North Korea would be up for discussion, according to a press release from the State Department, without giving any specifics.
His visit follows that of US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, which finished earlier this week.
The two sides will also conclude the first round of their Law Enforcement and Cybersecurity Dialogue next week where they will discuss increased cooperation on repatriations, fugitives, counter-narcotics, and also cyber crime.
The sessions will be co-chaired by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke on the US side, and State Councillor and Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun on the Chinese side.
The US has been pressing China on a series of economic and security issues. It wants action to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapon programme, reduce the bilateral trade deficit, protect intellectual property and give US companies more market access to China.
But after two rounds of economic and security dialogue in June and July in Washington, the Trump administration has only made limited progress.
While China is still making the final preparations for the 19th Communist Party congress in October – which will see a reshuffle of the party leadership– it will be difficult for the US to set its priorities for the president’s visit.
Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, said the current conversations between the two governments were “relatively modest in ambition”.
“The outcome of the 19th party congress will affect China’s economic policy trajectory,” Kennedy told the Newspapers, adding that it would “perhaps lead the US to re-examine its judgments on Chinese behaviour”.
He also said that the US had only made marginal progress on reaching an internal consensus on what its major concerns were about Chinese economic behaviour, how China should change and what tools or penalties America should use to bring about that change.
He argued that until China’s domestic political scene is reset and the US settles on an overall China policy, the current dialogues are essentially buying time.
David Lampton, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, told a discussion on Sino-US relations at the school on Wednesday that “if North Korea is still in a state of limbo”, economic policy is the only area Trump can make progress in when he visits China in November.
“It is time for Washington … to seriously consider acknowledging that the DPRK [North Korea] has a modest nuclear deterrent,” Lampton said, “and to deter North Korea’s use of these capabilities and proliferation activity as Washington did with the[Soviet Union] and China.”
David Petraeus, the former director of the CIA, told a policy forum at the same venue on Thursday: “The biggest challenge [of the era] is between the US and China.” He said there was going to be more competition between the two countries in economics, security and other areas.
“The Trump administration’s rhetoric [against North Korea] is about getting China’s attention, not just about getting Kim Jong-un’s attention,” Petraeus, who is now is now a partner at the New York-based private equity firm KKR, added.
“China needs to understand the strategic context in the region may change very dramatically.”