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Xi Jinping Seeks Cooperation With U.S. Ahead Of China's Leadership Transition


Now we're going to get a different view of the summit this time from Beijing. We turn to NPR's Beijing correspondent Anthony Kuhn. Anthony, greetings. Thanks so much for talking with us.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: You're very welcome, Michel.

MARTIN: So what does China want to get out of the summit?

KUHN: Well, remember, Michel, that this is a political transition year for China. President Xi Jinping is due to get a second five-year term this fall, so they do not want ties with Washington blowing up or getting in the way of that. They want high-level contacts with Washington to be regular, and they want more stability in their relationship than they've had so far under this administration.

Also remember Donald Trump was the candidate that I think most Chinese wanted to see win, and many Chinese like the fact that he's a businessman. And they think they can negotiate with him. Some believe that he may even give China a chance to advance its global interests, perhaps, at the U.S.'s expense.

MARTIN: That actually leads me to where I wanted to go next. I mean, on the one hand, both Xi Jinping and Trump think of themselves as different from their predecessors. On the other hand, Trump had very strong language about China over the course of the campaign, and, you know, does any of that affect the chemistry at this meeting - or what do you think about that?

KUHN: Right. Well, you could, I suppose, argue that both of these men consider themselves sort of political strongmen, really stronger than men who came before them. They've both tried to increase the power of their offices and demanded loyalty from their subordinates. But I don't think that's necessarily enough to spark a budding bromance. Just because they have these ambitions it doesn't mean that either of them will succeed in achieving them.

MARTIN: And Xi Jinping has made comments suggesting that China is poised to fill the vacuum that the U.S. says it wants to leave by pulling out of international commitments. What does he mean by that?

KUHN: Well, on a couple of occasions, you know, President Xi Jinping has spoken out for free trade, open markets, globalization, the Paris agreement on climate change, and Xi has been using these opportunities to show China as a heavyweight in global governance, providing public goods for the international community and defending the international order.

One thing I think that is pretty clear is that many people in China believe that the U.S. is losing soft power and moral high ground. So when the U.S. government hammers China over issues like torture, press freedoms, treatment of ethnic minorities, nepotism, corruption and conflict of interest in government, it rings pretty hollow. And we know this because we've been reading months worth of sort of crowing, jeering commentaries to that effect in China's state-run media.

MARTIN: OK. So North Korea - nuclear weapons, wouldn't that be a shared item of interest and a very pressing issue on the agenda for both countries? Is there anything that they can really hope to accomplish in this meeting?

KUHN: Well, they've got to do something about it because time is really running out before North Korea will get missiles with nuclear warheads capable of targeting U.S. territory. The problem is there is so much daylight between the U.S.'s and China's positions. Both sides think the other side has to do the heavy lifting on this problem.

As far as Beijing is concerned, it wants the U.S. to provide North Korea with some sort of security guarantee in exchange for either freezing its nuclear programs or denuclearizing, as it's already promised to do. The other problem is that both sides realize that the North Korean nuclear issue is tied into so many other things. So if Washington and Beijing get into a spat over trade, over Taiwan, over the South China Sea, the chances of cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue will be very slim.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Beijing correspondent Anthony Kuhn joining us from Beijing. Anthony, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KUHN: You bet, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.