President Donald Trump hoped Chinese President Xi Jinping’s April visit to Mar-a-Lago would reset the United States’ complicated relationship with Beijing, even going so far as to bring his granddaughter Arabella to serenade Xi and his wife in Mandarin.
“I believe lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away,” Trump said at the close of their two-day meeting at his private club in Florida, adding that the world leaders had made “tremendous progress.”
But four months later, the “bad problems” are only getting worse — and Trump’s frustration with China is boiling over.
The president is slated on Monday to send a warning shot to Beijing, calling for a trade investigation against China for violations of U.S. intellectual property rights — a probe that could pave the way for steep tariffs.
In recent months, Trump has become increasingly resentful of China, arguing that the country is engaging in unfair trade practices and isn’t doing enough to stop North Korea from developing a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States.
The U.S. made a breakthrough in its diplomatic relationship with Beijing when it successfully convinced China to join other countries in backing new United Nations sanctions on North Korea last week. But that clearly isn’t enough for Trump, who has come to believe that China simply isn’t willing to take a more aggressive stance against North Korea, its main trading partner.
Monday’s announcement will mark the escalation of Trump’s increasingly aggressive posture toward China. It comes after the Treasury Department earlier this summer announced sanctions against Chinese entities for their ties to North Korea.
In recent weeks, as North Korea tested intercontinental ballistic missiles, Trump has raged behind the scenes and in public, urged on by China hawks in his administration like trade adviser Peter Navarro and chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Bannon has increasingly focused on China, and he has argued that hitting China hard on trade is one way to get a handle on the North Korea threat.
“Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet…they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!” Trump wrote on Twitter last month.
Trump’s tweet is a sharp contrast from what he told The Wall Street Journal in April after meeting with Xi. After Trump asserted China could easily eliminate the threat of North Korea, Xi persuaded him it isn’t that simple
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump told the Journal, recounting his conversation with Xi. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea, he added. “But it’s not what you would think.”
Trump often internalizes the perspective of the most recent person he speaks with — one possible explanation for his comments to the Journal. Aides said Trump now firmly believes China isn’t using its influence with North Korea to descalate the situation in North Korea. They also dismiss the notion that Trump was naive to try to win over Xi at Mar-a-Lago, adding that administration officials were always planning alternative options in case the Trump-Xi relationship soured.
But for all Trump’s China talk, outside experts say the administration has yet to publicly outline a cohesive, wide-ranging China strategy.
“I don’t think there’s really been a whole-of-government approach to deal with China,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where she focuses on China.
Glasser noted that the White House has yet to name permanent leaders of several key China-related positions across the government. The State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Defense Department’s Asian and Pacific Security Affairs arm, are currently run by acting officials because Trump has not yet nominated anybody to fill the positions.
Trump has repeatedly pressured China to crack down on North Korea. Aides said Trump was enraged after North Korea tested another ballistic missile last month that experts said could potentially hit the U.S. mainland.
Christopher Hill, the former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and the former head of the State Department’s East Asia bureau during the George W. Bush administration, said Trump can’t “outsource” the U.S.’s problems with North Korea to the Chinese.
“I think he had some notion that he could have a grand bargain for somehow China solving North Korea,” Hill said. “There needs to be a much more comprehensive effort to sit down with the Chinese, scope out the landscape and lay out what the Korean peninsula might look like in a unified way.”
Trump is expected to travel to China later this year, possibly in November when he will attend a trio of summits in Vietnam and the Philippines. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have also been invited to China..
But in the meantime, Trump’s trade announcement on Monday could further heighten tension between China and the United States.
Trump will urge U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to open an investigation under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, according to administration sources.. If the investigation finds evidence of unfair trade practices, the administration could begin the process of imposing duties on China.
The investigation is the first step in the administration’s trade-related counter-attack on China. Senior administration officials have been meeting every Tuesday for more than three months to debate a slew of trade policies, and China has often been a central focus of the discussion.
After weeks of infighting over the possibility of imposing tariffs on steel imports, Trump’s advisers found a rare point of consensus in the 301 investigation. One administration official said few senior Trump adviser disagreed with the approach, despite some initial “robust” debate about the issue.
“Instead of going to those meetings and having a food fight about steel tariffs, we wanted a more proactive, consensus-driven trade policy,” the administration official said.