WASHINGTON - When Donald Trump flew back from a summit with China in Buenos Aires, he hailed it as “amazing” and raised hopes of a breakthrough on ending a trade war.
That same day, Canada was arresting a top Chinese executive on a U.S. request, enraging Beijing and at the very least souring the mood as the world’s two largest economies open trade negotiations.
The detention of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou marks the latest case of incongruous diplomacy for this most untraditional of U.S. presidents, who has vowed dramatic detentes only to find out that his own administration is pressing ahead with moves that will anger the same nations.
On Russia, Trump took office speaking glowingly of President Vladimir Putin and promising to patch up relations.
But Russia — which, according to U.S. intelligence, intervened to sway the 2016 election — has voiced frustration as the United States keeps imposing sanctions over actions including Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the attempted poisoning of a Russian double agent in Britain.
Trump, who early in his term boasted of befriending Chinese President Xi Jinping, in recent months piled tariffs on Beijing as he pressed the rising Asian power on trade practices including its alleged theft of U.S. technology.
At the dinner summit in Buenos Aires, where Trump and Xi were taking part in a Group of 20 meeting, the United States agreed to hold off on raising tariffs on another $200 billion worth of Chinese goods for 90 days as the two sides negotiate.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat who has often criticized Trump, said he shared concerns about alleged espionage by Chinese companies but called the administration’s approach disjointed.
“This is a textbook case of how one part of this administration doesn’t seem to be on the same wavelength — or even not connect — with each other,” Wyden said.
“Because there is no question now that the gap seems to be widening between the president’s national security advisers and the president,” he said.
National security adviser John Bolton declined to say whether Trump was aware of the arrest plans when he and his top aides sat down with Xi in Argentina.
But Bolton told National Public Radio that he himself was aware through the Justice Department of the operation in Vancouver, where Meng — the daughter of Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei, a former engineer in China’s military — was changing planes.
U.S. officials have stayed tight-lipped on the arrest, mindful that statements could endanger prosecution. But Sen. Ben Sasse said Meng was arrested over alleged Huawei activities in Iran, which the Trump administration has hit with sweeping sanctions.
There was at least one report that the arrest may not just be spectacularly bad timing.
CNN, quoting an unnamed source, said the Trump administration could see Meng’s arrest as leverage in the negotiations, but White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told the channel that “the two issues are totally separate.”
And U.S. authorities would still need to present a legal case for any charges against Meng. She faces an extradition hearing Friday in Canada.
The arrest of such a prominent executive has quickly touched a patriotic nerve in China, where commentators say the United States is trying to keep down Huawei, which has made rapid inroads in the developing world with smartphones that are significantly more affordable than Apple’s iPhones.
Eurasia Group analysts in a note to investors expected China to voice anger but still to send a trade delegation to Washington to kick off talks.
But they said that U.S. actions, including future steps under consideration, such as declaring China in violation of an accord against cybertheft, cast doubt on whether negotiations would succeed.
The arrest “suggests that the gloves are now fully off in this arena, and U.S. law enforcement officials have a green light from senior administration officials to pursue individuals the U.S. may not have gone after in a more benign bilateral political climate,” they wrote.
Shaun Rein, managing director of the Shanghai-based strategic market intelligence firm CMR, warned in an essay that U.S. tech executives should worry about tit-for-tat arrests if visiting China.
If the United States is basing its action over Huawei’s involvement in Iran, China could for example make arrests citing operations in Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing considers a province awaiting reunification, Rein said.
“If you think anything was solved last week at the G20 meeting between Trump and Xi, I have some swampland to sell you.”