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Trade war

Xi picks his battles to make progress on trade

Attack on 'protectionism' takes back seat to Beijing's other interests

Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese officials attend a working dinner with U.S. President Donald Trump in Buenos Aires on Dec. 1.   © Reuters

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- In the lead-up to Saturday's summit that yielded a temporary truce in Sino-American trade war, Chinese President Xi Jinping carefully executed a public relations strategy to help smooth over past rifts.

Around 5:30 p.m. on the big day, a black car carrying none other than Xi pulled into the hotel where U.S. President Donald Trump was staying. Highly face-conscious Chinese leaders rarely hold meetings with counterparts on what could be considered the latter's territory.

"Something is different," a diplomat also said while listening to Xi's speech to the Group of 20 on Friday. The Chinese president opposed protectionism both at a meeting of emerging economies earlier that day and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in mid-November. But he took a softer tone at the G-20, saying countries "should firmly uphold free trade and the rules-based multilateral trading system."

The shift's purpose was clear. Trump vehemently resisted including a pledge to "fight protectionism" in the leaders' declaration from the summit as the bloc had done in previous years. The same sticking point prevented APEC leaders from issuing a joint declaration in November.

Had Xi directly criticized protectionism in Friday's speech, he would been left with no choice but to insist on including the word in the declaration, putting him at odds with Trump. He instead decided to focus on issues that are truly essential to China.

Xi drew a clear line between areas where he is willing to make concessions to Washington and such off-the-table topics as the development of advanced technologies and the treatment of state-owned enterprises. China will deepen market-oriented reform, protect intellectual property rights, encourage fair competition and do more to expand imports, he said.

Xi also urged international cooperation on new technologies. After expressing support for "necessary reform" of the World Trade Organization, he said countries "need to conduct extensive consultation to achieve gradual progress instead of imposing one's position on others." Trump steered clear of such topics in his meeting with Xi.

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