Ties with China grow strained amid mixed signals and lack of point man from US

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US President Donald Trump insisted that he and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a "very strong phone call" on Wednesday.

But if Mr Trump kept alive the rapport he has painstakingly cultivated with the Chinese leader, the 45-minute call still served to underscore the widening fissures between Washington and Beijing and the deepening confusion about how the Trump administration is managing the relationship.

The National Security Council is conducting a review of the White House's China policy - taking into account Mr Trump's populist trade agenda and differences over how to curb the rogue government in North Korea - but it has commanded little attention.

Aside from Mr Trump himself, it remains unclear who in the administration wields genuine influence on the relationship.

Mr Jared Kushner, Mr Trump's son-in-law, who helped broker the first meeting between the two presidents in April, was once expected to function as a high-level conduit. But his involvement in China has waned; he did not accept an invitation from the Chinese to go to Beijing this month (September) for a visit that some expected would be in preparation for Mr Trump's state visit in November.

Other officials who have staked a claim to China, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, have run afoul of Mr Trump, either on specific policies or broader issues. And Mr Trump's national security adviser H.R. McMaster is not playing the coordinating role on China that several of his predecessors did.

MIXED SIGNALS

That lack of a guiding hand has contributed to the administration's dissonant signals toward Beijing.

Two months ago, Mr Ross tried to negotiate a deal with China on steel exports, only to be publicly rebuffed by Mr Trump. On Sunday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin threatened to cut off trade with any country that does business with North Korea - an unsubtle, and impractical, warning to its main trading partner, China.

"President Xi would like to do something," Mr Trump told reporters about their exchange on North Korea. "We'll see whether or not he can do it. But we will not be putting up with what's happening in North Korea. I believe that President Xi agrees with me 100 per cent."

But there is little evidence that Mr Xi will sign on to the steps being pushed by the United States: a global embargo of oil supplies to North Korea.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who often acts as Mr Xi's proxy on these matters, declared that he would oppose such a move in the United Nations Security Council, where Russia holds a veto.

Mr Xi, a senior Trump administration official said, stuck to his talking points during the call with Mr Trump. Among them: China was already doing the most it could to pressure North Korea, taking additional steps could create havoc in the region, and the best remedy for the current tension would be for the US to enter talks with Pyongyang.

If Mr Xi refrains from putting more pressure on North Korea at this moment, it would further test the relationship with Mr Trump, which, analysts said, was already strained by the president's resolve to hit China on the trade front.

For all his rapport with Mr Xi, Mr Trump has a visceral dedication to his trade agenda.

Last month, he announced an investigation of China's rampant theft of technology from US companies. And when Mr Ross presented him with a proposed deal under which the Chinese would agree to short-term goals for reducing their steel production capacity, Mr Trump rejected the agreement out of hand, demanding instead steps that would impose tariffs on Chinese steel exports.

Mr Ross, a fellow billionaire who seemed to command Mr Trump's respect and affection, has lost influence with the President since that episode, according to current and former officials. An official close to the President pointed out that Mr Trump thanked Mr Ross during a speech on tax policy last week in Springfield, Missouri.

Mr Tillerson has tried to carve out a profile on diplomacy with China. But his relationship with Mr Trump has grown frosty in recent weeks, in part because of Mr Tillerson's statement, in the aftermath of last month's deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that "the president speaks for himself", which appeared to distance him from Mr Trump.

LACK OF POINT MAN

As the US and China enter what is likely to be a turbulent period, former US officials and other China experts said the lack of a point man for the relationship could aggravate tensions.

"Previous administrations have had a decisive point man on China. This administration does not," said Mr Jeffrey Bader, who served as a senior adviser to former president Barack Obama on China.

"Relations between Trump and Xi are strong and do stabilise the bilateral relationship. However, a president-to-president relationship is really not enough," he added.

During the George W. Bush administration, Mr Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary and former Goldman Sachs banker, coordinated China policy. In the Obama administration, the national security adviser, Mr Tom Donilon, took ownership of the China portfolio.

OBVIOUS CANDIDATE?

Mr Kushner had seemed an obvious candidate to play that role. He and the Chinese ambassador to Washington Cui Tiankai orchestrated the April meeting at Mr Trump's Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, at which the President and Mr Xi got to know each other.

In June, the Chinese government invited Mr Kushner and his wife, Ms Ivanka Trump, to visit Beijing later in the year.

White House officials said no visit was ever scheduled, and hence, none was cancelled. Mr Kushner's initially prominent role on China policy, they said, ebbed naturally as other officials, including Mr Tillerson and Mr Mnuchin, settled into their jobs. Mr Kushner, they said, remains involved in economic and trade issues regarding China.

Some attribute Mr Kushner's lower visibility to his overflowing agenda - he is trying to broker a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, not to mention overhauling the federal bureaucracy - while others said the new White House chief of staff, Mr John Kelly, was insisting that Mr Trump's Asia trip be prepared through traditional channels.

Mr Kushner is also ensnared in the multiple investigations of the Trump campaign's ties to Russia. People who know him heatedly deny that those inquiries have distracted from his day job, noting that he travelled recently to the Middle East for a week of intense diplomacy.

PREFERENCE FOR TEAM

As for the issue of having a point person on China, some White House officials said they decided not to adopt that model because it ran against the normal bureaucratic structure. Instead, they said, a team - Lieutenant- General McMaster, Mr Tillerson, Mr Kushner, Mr Mnuchin and the President himself - dominated the policy.

"While it's important to have big personalities involved in the relationship, it's more important to have a White House-led process to adjudicate the various disputes," said Mr Evan Medeiros, a former China adviser in the Obama administration. "On that front, there seem to be challenges."