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Where? When? How? China and United States at odds over right place and time for next Xi-Trump summit

By Laura Zhou Zhou Xin From South China Morning Post

Beijing has suggested the next China-US summit take place on the tropical Chinese island of Hainan next month, following suggestions from the White House that US President Donald Trump is eager to meet with his counterpart, Xi Jinping, sooner than later.

“He wants to meet with President Xi very soon,” White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News on Monday, adding that it “absolutely” looked like both sides were closing in on a deal to end the trade war.

Chinese officials proposed that Chinese President Xi and his US counterpart meet on the southern island around the time of the annual Boao Forum for Asia, which runs from March 26-29, according to a source briefed on the suggestion.

But the proposal was preliminary and the United States had yet to respond to the idea, the source said: “Neither the place nor the timing [of the summit] is finalised.”

US news website Axios also reported on Monday that “Xi may soon come to Mar-a-Lago” to meet Trump in mid-March, citing two unidentified administration officials.

The report said Trump’s Florida resort – where the two leaders first met in April 2017 – was the likely location for the summit but “nothing is set”.

Responding on Monday to the reports, Conway said only that a meeting at the resort was “possible”. Axios quoted another official as saying that other places, including Beijing, were also under consideration.

A face-to-face meeting between Xi and Trump, along with an announcement to end the trade war between the world’s two biggest economies, could boost investor confidence and the outlook for global growth.

Expectations that Trump and Xi would meet before March 1, the deadline for a deal on trade tariffs, rose in late January when Trump tweeted that no final deal would be made until they met “in the near future to discuss and agree” on some long-standing and “more difficult points”.

However, those hopes fell a week later when Trump said it was unlikely he would meet Xi before the March deadline.

That dampened prospects of a quick ending to the trade war and starting a guessing game over where, when, and even whether, the two leaders would talk in person.

Analysts said the picture could become clearer after trade talks in Beijing this week.

A low-level delegation from the US arrived Beijing on Monday for preparatory meetings that are expected to pave way for top-level talks on Thursday and Friday involving US trade representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He, one of Xi’s top aides, will lead the talks for China.

It is not known whether Xi will have a goodwill meeting with Lighthizer and Mnuchin this week.

Pang Zhongying, a professor of international relations at the Ocean University of China in Qingdao, said the two sides were likely to extend the deal deadline because more time was needed to sort out structural issues.

“A summit between the two leaders is necessary as some of the hard-core issues still need top leaders’ consent and the two sides appear to be willing to keep the diplomatic momentum going,” Pang said.

Lu Xiang, a China-US specialist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said a high-stakes summit could help bring about a deal as long as there was real progress in Beijing this week, such as a joint statement on the areas of agreement and disagreement between the two.

“That would mean that the two countries could be ready to settle their difference through the leaders’ summit,” Lu said. “But if the disputes are too great to issue a joint statement, it could mean that the differences would be hard for the two leaders to overcome, and there would be no need to have a summit.”

The previous round of talks in Washington last month ended without a real deal, but the two sides were positive about settling their trade dispute, with China saying both sides had a clear road map for future talks.

Larry Kudlow, head of the White House’s National Economic Council, told the Fox Business television channel on Thursday that there was “pretty sizeable distance” between the world’s two biggest economies on reaching an agreement.

Additional reporting by Owen Churchill

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