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International relations

US-China '100-day plan' yields tactical win for Xi

Appearance aside, Washington gets little of substance

TOKYO -- The 100-day plan agreed to last week by U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping seems at first to be a sizable compromise from Beijing. But close examination reveals that it is a vague promise that does not seem to lead to anything concrete.

The Trump administration painted the plan for economic talks as a hard-won prize from the summit April 7. The talks aim to "increase our exports to China and to reduce the trade deficit that we have with them," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told reporters after the agreement was forged.

Media mum

China's state media initially were silent on the plan, reporting only Foreign Minister Wang Yi's remarks that the leaders "agreed to deepen practical cooperation in trade and investment, and also properly manage economic and trade frictions to achieve mutual benefit." The first mention of the plan appeared Wednesday, following a phone call between Trump and Xi.

Even then, reports said only that Xi had urged the implementation of a "100-day plan on economic cooperation" -- a characterization clearly at odds with that from Washington. Internet commenters in China nevertheless blasted the plan, saying following through would amount to tossing cash America's way.

At first blush, Xi's meeting with the occasionally anti-China president -- at Trump's resort in Florida, no less -- itself risked giving the impression that Beijing sought to gain Washington's favor. The American missile strike on Syria conducted during Xi's visit despite his insistence on a peaceful resolution could be read as a further humiliation. For the Chinese leader then to be seen giving in to the U.S. on trade could damage Xi's authority. Small wonder state media stayed mostly mum.

Long game

But Xi may have emerged less battered than it seems. The 100-day plan was an achievement for China as well, said Shi Yinhong, a professor at Renmin University of China. The country compromised, but only in a vague way, he said.

It is unclear yet what the plan truly involves. No details have been revealed, and the two sides' characterizations of the agreement differ substantially. Xi appears to have offered no specific promises, making "vague" an apt descriptor.

Nor did the Chinese leader ply the Trump administration with massive orders for American-made goods or infrastructure investment to deflect discussion of the trade imbalance, as had been widely speculated ahead of the meeting. This absence contrasts with Xi's September 2015 visit to the U.S. for talks with then-President Barack Obama, during which time a Chinese state company ordered some 300 airplanes from Boeing.

It hardly would have benefited Xi to offer economic cooperation before playing his North Korea card, given pressure from Trump for Beijing to strengthen sanctions on Pyongyang in light of ongoing nuclear and missile testing. The 100-day plan lets the Chinese leader retain his full tactical tool set.

Beijing now can buy time to see how things develop. "It's hard to believe any substantive discussion can be had in just three months," a diplomatic source in the Chinese capital said.

Robert Lighthizer, Trump's nominee for U.S. trade representative, still awaits Senate confirmation. The administration's trade team has yet to get on its feet, as China knows full well.

As China's Communist Party prepares to choose new leadership at its National Congress this autumn, Xi's top priority is keeping ties with the U.S. on an even keel. The 100-day plan gives Washington a strong headline to push, and little more.

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