President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will cross paths Friday on the sidelines of a summit in Vietnam, but U.S. officials still aren’t sure they have enough to discuss to justify a formal meeting.
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, speaking to reporters in Beijing on Thursday as Mr. Trump wrapped up two days of talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, said a meeting with Mr. Putin requires “substantive” topics to discuss.
“We have been in contact with them, and the view has been if the two leaders are going to meet, is there something sufficiently substantive to talk about that would warrant a formal meeting,” Mr. Tillerson said. “There’s been no conclusion made on that.”
Both leaders are attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, and Mr. Tillerson said it “wouldn’t be at all unusual if they ended up with some kind of a pull-aside.”
Mr. Trump has said he wants Mr. Putin’s help in pressuring North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile programs, a crisis for which China had no clear answers this week.
Mr. Tillerson said other possible topics for Mr. Putin include finding a solution to the war in Syria, eradicating the Islamic State terrorists in the Middle East and addressing Russia’s military incursion in Ukraine.
Asked about Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Tillerson said: “It stays on that list.”
A Kremlin spokesman said Mr. Putin likely will meet with Mr. Trump, but there is “no agreed agenda.”
The two leaders met face-to-face meeting for the first time in July at a summit in Germany, where Mr. Putin disavowed Russian interference in the election.
Before leaving China, Mr. Trump toned down his criticism of Beijing, saying China isn’t to blame for the mammoth trade imbalance with the U.S. He expressed the hope that Mr. Xi will “work hard” to reduce tensions with North Korea.
Mr. Trump said the “very one-sided and unfair” trade relationship between the U.S. and China is actually the fault of his predecessors in Washington. He called Mr. Xi “a very special man.”
“I don’t blame China,” Mr. Trump said. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.”
He told Chinese and U.S. business leaders at an event, “I do blame past [U.S.] administrations for allowing this out-of-control trade deficit to take place and to grow. We have to fix this because it just doesn’t work for our great American companies, and it doesn’t work for our great American workers. It is just not sustainable.”
Mr. Trump later clarified on Twitter, “I don’t blame China, I blame the incompetence of past Admins for allowing China to take advantage of the U.S. on trade leading up to a point where the U.S. is losing $100’s of billions. How can you blame China for taking advantage of people that had no clue? I would’ve done same!”
Mr. Trump said China “must immediately address the unfair trade practices that drive” the trade imbalance.
While U.S. and Chinese companies signed nonbinding deals worth hundreds of billions of dollars Thursday, Mr. Tillerson said there’s much more work ahead to trim the U.S. trade deficit with China that totals $223 billion for the first 10 months of this year.
“I think the best way to characterize it is that while we appreciate the long hours and the effort that our Chinese counterparts have put into those trade discussions, quite frankly in the grand scheme of a $300-to-500-billion trade deficit, the things that have been achieved are pretty small,” Mr. Tillerson told reporters, adding that, “in terms of really getting at some of the fundamental elements of why this imbalance exists, there is still a lot more work to do.”
During the presidential campaign in 2016, Mr. Trump said the U.S. can no longer “allow China to rape our country,” and complained that “grossly incompetent” U.S. officials were allowing China’s currency manipulation and intellectual property theft.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York was among the Democrats accusing Mr. Trump of backing away from his get-tough campaign rhetoric about China.
“The president may not blame China, but I do, and so do millions of Americans who voted for him and others who have lost their jobs at the hands of China’s rapacious trade policies,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement. “After campaigning like a lion against China’s trade practices, the president is governing like a lamb. Rather than treating China with kid gloves, the president should be much tougher with China — as he promised he would be on the campaign trail.”
Rep. Tim Ryan, Ohio Democrat, said Mr. Trump is backing away from promises to confront China over unfair trade practices such as currency manipulation and steel dumping.
“While President Trump acts tough on China in front of friendly crowds at campaign rallies, this week we saw how he acts when he is face to face with Chinese leaders,” Mr. Ryan said.
Mr. Tillerson said he thinks the president was making a light-hearted remark to his Chinese audience about a trade deficit that he has previously called “embarrassing.”
“There was a little bit of tongue-in-cheek in that characterization,” Mr. Tillerson said. “But there was also a lot of truth to it.”
On Thursday in Beijing, Mr. Trump said of the trade relationship, “we will make it fair and it will be tremendous for both of us.”
Mr. Xi smiled widely when Mr. Trump said he does not blame China for the deficit.
“Of course there are some frictions, but on the basis of win-win cooperation and fair competition, we hope we can solve all these issues in a frank and consultative way,” Mr. Xi said. “We will never narrow or close our doors. We will further widen them.”
On North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, Mr. Trump said both leaders agree on the urgency of the problem.
“China can fix this problem easily. And quickly. And I am calling on China and your great president to hopefully work on it very hard,” Mr. Trump said with Mr. Xi at his side. “If he works on it hard it will happen.”
Mr. Xi reiterated that China would strive for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula but offered no hint that China would change tack on North Korea.
“We are devoted to reaching a resolution to the Korean peninsula issue through dialogue and consultations,” Mr. Xi said.
Mr. Tillerson told reporters that Mr. Trump had urged Mr. Xi privately, “You’re a strong man, I’m sure you can solve this for me.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire-service reports.