Six years on from cake at Mar-a-Lago, China’s Xi returns to a much warier US

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited President Barack Obama’s Florida resort of Mar-a-Lago, where the two shared a dinner of American steaks and Chinese firecracker shrimp. They ended the night eating chocolate cake.

Six years later, Obama is long gone and their successors are on distinctly colder terms.

Xi will on Wednesday fly to Florida again for bilateral talks with US President Donald Trump. But this time, it’s a much warier encounter as the two countries grapple with mounting economic hostilities and an inability to resolve differences in areas from technology and intellectual property rights to trade and Taiwan.

China has been angered by US sanctions on some of its technology companies, as well as tariff hikes on billions of dollars worth of its goods. It has threatened to retaliate if the US continues its “bullying” behaviour.

The Trump administration has accused Beijing of unfair trade practices that it says have been costing the US economy jobs and billions of dollars in revenue. Trump has vowed to reduce the large US trade deficit with China, a goal that has been unfulfilled so far.

The US is also concerned by China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region, with some strategists worrying that Beijing could soon dominate the South China Sea.

With no breakthroughs expected this week, the meetings will likely serve as a chance for the two leaders to size each other up, said Jeffrey Bader, Obama’s former chief Asia adviser on the National Security Council.

“It will be a useful meeting for both sides, even if there are no deliverables,” said Bader, now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s a chance for the two sides to make their respective assessments and to understand the position of the other side. You can’t negotiate unless you understand what the other side is prepared to do.”

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