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With a U.S.-China trade deal at least weeks away, Chinese negotiators have suggested combining a long-discussed state visit by President Xi Jinping to the United States with the announcement of any forthcoming agreement, according to three sources briefed on discussions.
The two countries had been planning a meeting between the two leaders at President Donald Trump's private Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to follow Xi's late-March visit to Europe, to avoid the optics of a standalone trip to announce a trade deal on U.S. soil.
But U.S. officials have suggested there are too many outstanding details to conclude negotiations by then, making a meeting in March unlikely.
"Our hope is we are in the final weeks of having an agreement," Robert Lighthizer, the Trump administration's top trade official, testified to the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday. But Lighthizer would not commit to a positive outcome, or a resulting meeting, and said many issues remain. "If those issues are not resolved in favor of the United States, we won't have a deal."
Since the two countries brokered a temporary truce at the G-20, U.S. negotiators have been seeking commitments and concessions up front, while Chinese negotiators had sought to shelve complicated issues for the two presidents to settle in person.
But that dynamic changed, the three people briefed on the talks said, when Trump walked out on talks with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, after North Korea sought an end to sanctions. Beijing now wants a deal fully locked in before its leader sits down with Trump, although Trump would still prefer to close the deal himself.
"We could have the deal completed and come and sign — or we can get the deal almost completed and negotiate some of the final points," Trump said Wednesday. "I would prefer that."
Unlike a casual retreat — such as the one the two presidents shared at Mar-a-Lago in April 2017 — the trappings of a state visit would require much more coordination: an arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, a 21-gun ceremony on the White House lawn, an overnight stay at Blair House and a formal state dinner reception with entertainment.
"A state visit requires more complicated protocol arrangements, but it can be done," said James Green, a senior fellow at Georgetown University who was a U.S. Trade Representative official at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing until 2018. "The Chinese government has consistently pushed for state visits to the United States for its top leader, so this effort for Xi Jinping is not surprising."
A state visit has been under discussion since last year, two sources said, with Chinese officials expecting Washington to reciprocate Xi's reception of Trump in Beijing in November 2017 — replete with a private dinner in the Forbidden City and a signing ceremony for a slate of bilateral deals in the Great Hall of the People.
Visits to the White House and Mar-a-Lago by Xi may not be mutually exclusive, since prior state visits have normally included multiple stops. Chinese officials have also suggested Xi visit Houston to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's 1979 visit to Texas following the two countries' joint communique. Xi's last state visit, in September 2015, included stops in Washington, in Seattle to meet business executives, and in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly.
It's unclear how receptive the White House has been to China's proposal — described as informal — to combine the state visit with a trade announcement. The White House and the Treasury Department did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the USTR declined to comment.
Barring a separate visit, the two leaders are also expected to meet at the G-20 summit at the end of June in Osaka, Japan.