Liu He, China's vice premier, with President Donald Trump in...

Liu He, China's vice premier, with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on April 4. Credit: Bloomberg / Andrew Harrer

Over the weekend, an unexpected political exchange cropped up. Ninety-four-year-old ex-President Jimmy Carter told a church congregation he'd spoken Saturday with President Donald Trump. By Carter's account, Trump expressed concern China's economy would overtake everyone else's including the U.S.

In a way the contact made sense. Democrat Carter was the president who normalized relations with the Communist giant in a process that began with President Richard Nixon.

But Carter sounded as if he were on a different plane of consciousness from the current Republican president, whom he has criticized on matters of human rights and equality. Trump has ridiculed Carter on Twitter.

“Since 1979, do you know how many times China has been at war with anybody?” Carter said. “None. And we have stayed at war.” While China has 18,000 miles of high-speed rail, the U.S. has wasted trillions of dollars on military spending, he said. He continued, “I wasn’t comparing my country adversely to China. I was just pointing that out because I happened to get a phone call last night.”

The White House, in the midst of a tariff war with China and talks to end it, confirmed the call and said Trump received a "beautiful letter" from Carter on the topic. Other subjects were discussed, and Trump "always liked" Carter, the statement said. Five other presidents served between their tenures.

No effort was made to explain away Trump's previous pre-presidency Twitter shots at Carter as a "stiff" and "the worst President" before Barack Obama.

But one takeaway is clear: While China trade talks crawl forward, the concern as conveyed by Carter contrasts sharply with Trump's public posture.

Former President Jimmy Carter in Plains, Ga., in 2018.

Former President Jimmy Carter in Plains, Ga., in 2018. Credit: AP / John Bazemore

In public, Trump blithely resumes his happy talk and bravado. "We’re going to win either way. We either win by getting a deal or we win by not getting a deal,” Trump said Monday at a business roundtable in Burnsville, Minnesota.

But despite Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin saying “we’re hopeful that we’re getting close to the final round of concluding issues,” the optimism is, if not inexplicable, at least debatably grounded in fact. While farmers and manufacturers worry about tariff costs and Chinese restrictions on their exports, the top issues remain unresolved by all accounts.

Continuing concerns include China's forcing American companies to turn over its technology as a condition of doing business there and keeping U.S. companies out of some of its domestic industries.

Even if an agreement is made in principle, an understanding would need to be reached on keeping Beijing from reneging on its terms.

Trade-talk leader Robert Lighthizer commented on that last month, saying the U.S. had to keep the right to hike tariffs “in situations where there’s violations of the agreement. If we don’t do that, then none of it makes any difference.”

Despite signs that the trade battle is crimping China's economy, many will still regard this as the "Chinese century" with long-term momentum belonging to America's rival.

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