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Story highlights

There is uncertainty about this week's summit

Many voices are a part of the planning

(CNN) —  

As President Donald Trump prepares for his highest-stakes foreign policy meeting to date, a sometimes-discordant collection of voices is guiding the new US leader on how to confront Chinese President Xi Jinping on a variety of urgent issues, leading to uncertainty about the goals for this week’s summit.

Behind the scenes in the West Wing, moderate and hardline aides are competing for Trump’s ear as he prepares for the talks, according to multiple US officials familiar with preparation for the meetings.

The summit, which begins Thursday, is being closely monitored in both countries after a bumpy start to perhaps the most important bilateral relationship in the world.

The disparate approaches have led to little certainty in how Trump’s session with Xi will proceed. Both sides arrive at Trump’s sumptuous Mar-a-Lago resort with key objectives that largely hinge on how the unpredictable new US leader broaches topics like North Korea, maritime aggressions, and trade with the enigmatic and calculating Xi.

In an interview with the Financial Times Friday, Trump was exceedingly vague about his goals for talks with Xi, avoiding any details about what may be on the agenda for the meeting, even when pressed about issues like trade and North Korea.

“I have great respect for him,” Trump said of his Chinese counterpart in the interview. “I have great respect for China. I would not be at all surprised if we did something that would be very dramatic and good for both countries and I hope so.”

This week’s meeting comes early in Trump’s administration, before large slates of key administration posts are filled. No recent US leader has met for substantive talks with his Chinese counterpart this early in his tenure, and Tump’s advisers and agencies have said little publicly about what official stances the administration will take on China.

That’s led to some incertitude about what, precisely, Trump hopes to accomplish when he sits down with Xi on Thursday and Friday. He previewed a discussion centered on North Korea and trade in the interview Friday, but said it was too early to begin specific negotiations over tariffs.

Aides said last week that Trump’s administration will largely remain quiet human rights issues – a constant sticking point between the two countries – at least in public.

Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been a key conduit between the Chinese government and the White House in the lead-up to the two leaders’ talks, which Xi’s representatives requested take place at Trump’s Florida estate. In discussions with China’s ambassador in Washington, Kushner has sketched the agenda for the meetings and dictated some elements of the Palm Beach summit, according to people familiar with the planning.

01:33 - Source: CNN
WH threatens unilateral action on North Korea

Kushner is seen as a moderating voice on US-China ties, which are becoming both more complicated and more vital as Trump begins his presidency. His daughter, Arabella, has played an unlikely role as well in softening Trump’s approach; video of the five-year-old presidential granddaughter singing in Chinese at a New Year’s celebration in Washington went viral in China.

Meanwhile, harder-line perspectives – which Trump embraced as a candidate and was repeating as recently as last week – continue to inform the President’s approach toward Beijing. The leading proponents for that tack include Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon and top trade envoy Peter Navarro, who continue to push the President to deliver a tough opening message to Xi, according to officials.

Navarro, who leads Trump’s National Trade Council, has centered his career largely around a strident argument against China’s trade practices. He’s insisted that China’s subsidizing of exports while limiting imports amounts to an act of economic war, and produced a 2012 documentary film, “Death by China,” that depicted a cartoon map of China stabbing the United States.

Bannon, who served as a naval officer in the Pacific, has offered similarly fatalistic views toward the US-China relationship. He predicted only a year ago on a Breitbart radio show that the US would find itself in armed conflict with China within a decade.

“We’re going to war in the South China Sea in 5-10 years,” he said in March 2016. “There’s no doubt about that.”

It was those opinions which informed Trump’s harsh approach toward China during last year’s campaign, when he railed against the country for its trade practices and vowed to adopt a tougher stance than his predecessors. Just last week, Trump previewed a contentious session with Xi, whom he’s meeting for the first time.

“The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses. American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives,” he wrote on Twitter.

Neither Kushner, Bannon nor Navarro has previously served in the federal government, and all three – along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – are now engaging in high-stakes US diplomacy for the first time. Tillerson traveled to Beijing earlier this month and met with Xi; in short prepared remarks during their talks, the top diplomat demonstrated little of Trump’s pugnacious approach toward China, instead focusing on shared interests.

02:28 - Source: CNN
WH: Trump agrees to honor 'One China' policy

Trump himself spoke with Xi for the first time in February after an extended period of silence. Xi was insistent that Trump publicly endorse the “One China” policy that has long governed US-China ties after Trump broke protocol by taking a congratulatory call from the leader of Taiwan after being elected.

After the consternation caused by Trump’s opening moves, observers of US-China ties say a restart is in order ahead of a complicated, years-long relationship between the two leaders.

“If they find they agree on the issues that need to be addressed and are able to deal with them in a positive sense … then the summit will have served a useful purpose,” said J. Stapleton Roy, a longtime US diplomat who served as ambassador to China under President Bill Clinton. “Even though it’s taking place at a moment when the administration is substantively not yet ready for it.”