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Where The U.S. And China Now Stand


The U.S. relationship with China appears to be changing again. During the campaign, Donald Trump accused China over and over of manipulating its currency and he pledged to retaliate. Yesterday, President Trump walked that back. China, meanwhile, has pledged to work with the U.S. on the North Korean nuclear issue. Listen to what President Trump said yesterday on that subject.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: President Xi wants to do the right thing. We had a very good bonding. I think we had a very good chemistry together. I think he wants to help us with North Korea. We talked trade. We talked a lot of things. And I said the way you're going to make a good trade deal is to help us with North Korea.

MARTIN: That chemistry was forged during a high-profile meeting between President Trump and President Xi last week at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort. Here to discuss what all this might mean is NPR Beijing correspondent Anthony Kuhn. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So right after that summit, we didn't hear a lot of details about any kind of deal or what was said, what might have been negotiated. And now we're getting some signals about what have - what could have transpired. What are you reading into this?

KUHN: Well, we didn't hear from either side that there was an explicit deal or what it might have been, but it's obvious that both countries gave and got and some very important things. For its part, China was spared being named a currency manipulator by the U.S. which could have led to eventually a trade war. China wanted the summit itself early on in the Trump administration in order to stabilize ties with Washington and they got that.

Now, let's look at the U.S. side. They got President Xi's statement, as they said, that China's willing to communicate and coordinate on the North Korean nuclear issue. And the U.S. also got China's abstention in a United Nations Security Council vote to condemn Syria for the use of chemical weapons. Now, China has generally voted with Russia on that yesterday on this issue but yesterday they did not.

Now, we know all along that President Trump has said that he wanted to do a deal using some issues as sticks and others as carrots. For example, he had previously suggested that he might upgrade relations with Taiwan as a way of forcing China to make concessions on trade. But Taiwan is a non-negotiable item for China and Trump had to back down.

So, you know, as you mentioned, it's interesting. President Trump said in that clip that he established some personal rapport with Xi and that may have helped to narrow the differences between them.

MARTIN: So key to this is China's help with North Korea which is an urgent threat. How hard is China willing to push the North Koreans on the nuclear program?

KUHN: Well, according to Chinese state media, President Xi Jinping told Trump that China's bottom line is that the Korean peninsula must be nuclear-free and also peaceful. And as long as that red line is not crossed, it seems there's a lot China can do. In February, China banned coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year. But even despite that, trade between China and North Korea actually increased by more than 30 percent in the first three months of that year.

So there's a lot they could cut there. We don't know exactly what Xi promised to do on North Korea, but we actually may find out very soon if North Korea conducts a sixth nuclear test which is something experts are concerned could happen very soon.

MARTIN: And just last thing on that currency manipulation issue. The president reversed himself dramatically by not naming China a currency manipulator. Do we know if China did something different here?

KUHN: No, it really did not. You know, President Trump basically admitted that his information was out of date. The value of China's currency, the yuan, has been going down against the dollar for nearly three years now but China's been spending billions of dollars to prop it up.

It's amazing. Only last week, President Trump said in an interview with the Financial Times that China was manipulating its currency. Now, he says it's not. And he admits that he realized that branding China a currency manipulator could destroy his chances of getting China's help with North Korea.

MARTIN: NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Beijing. Thanks so much, Anthony.

KUHN: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn
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.