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What China Wants From The U.S.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have the story of an American trying to manage China. Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law, took a vital role at the start of the administration. China's ambassador seized on that connection meeting Kushner again and again. Evan Osnos reported on the meetings for The New Yorker and finds the Kushner meetings to be a symptom of a larger issue. China, he says, came in with clear goals while Kushner did not.

EVAN OSNOS: What he thought he could do was to cut through what he calls the machinery of government, by which he means the bureaucracy - the diplomats, the people who have been working this relationship for decades. And he wanted to try to come to a quick breakthrough in the relationship.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to figure out what that means. What did he want to accomplish on behalf of the United States?

OSNOS: Well, he came in with more of an empty plate. The Chinese came in with a full plate. They knew exactly what they wanted. The Chinese wanted to have a summit between Xi Jinping and President Trump as soon as possible. They said as much. And Jared Kushner became the leading proponent of that idea within the White House. And he said look. It's important for them to build a personal kind of chemistry. Let's put aside the hard issues - the substantive questions about trade, about human rights. And let's just get a summit.

And that's what they did. They arranged a summit at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. And the Chinese were very satisfied with that ambition. But frankly, there were a lot of people in the U.S. government who were less happy - diplomats, people who really follow the relationship closely - because they said that if you just do a photo-op, then you're really satisfying China's objectives. China wants this because it shows that Xi Jinping's a great player on the world stage. And it also helps him at home politically. It makes him look strong to see the American president not raising these hard questions - things like trade.

INSKEEP: So we're talking about Jared Kushner, one individual, who wants to do the right thing but, in your reporting, didn't really know what he wanted - didn't know what to ask for, and Chinese officials who knew exactly what they wanted to ask for. Is that a metaphor for the U.S. and China writ large right now?

OSNOS: I think it is. In many ways, the Trump administration came into office believing that it was going to do things differently in all regards. The result of that was that they were coming in unarmed, ill-equipped to be able to deal with the really serious diplomatic counterpart.

INSKEEP: They knew what they didn't want. They didn't actually know what they did.

OSNOS: And China was very clear about pursuing its objectives.

INSKEEP: OK, that leads to another question then. Is China better at planning for the future than the United States is?

OSNOS: At the moment, there's no question the United States is struggling to plan for the future. And by that, I even mean a month ahead or two months ahead.

INSKEEP: Sure, we just had a government shutdown ended by a three-week opening of the government.

OSNOS: And the Chinese look at that as bewildering. What they're able to do, I think, that the United States struggles to do now is to put aside these immediate parochial political concerns and to identify - or at least agree upon what are the long-range challenges. In China's case, long-range challenges are economic, demographic - they're going to have a huge number of retirees and not enough people in the workforce - and things like the environment and climate. And in the United States, where we have our own set of problems, we're struggling even to identify them on a common basis.

INSKEEP: Now, that's an interesting point. One of the reasons that it's so hard even to keep the government open is because there are competing visions for what the United States should be, and they don't overlap maybe as much as people would like them to.

OSNOS: That's right. And in China, we should be blunt. You know, it's an authoritarian system in which there is one vision of what the future can look like. And that vision is the one that is adopted and presented by Xi Jinping. So there are tremendous stresses and problems that come with that - human rights abuses, abuses of the court system, things that prop up the Communist Party in ways that it wouldn't otherwise have. But what they are able to do is to see that their collective future is a collective future. They have to chart a path.

INSKEEP: Evan Osnos, thanks for coming by.

OSNOS: My pleasure, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.