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Xi fires shots at US before Trump meet, without mentioning him

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Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) attend a meeting with Russian President Putin and Indian Prime Minister Modi on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, 28 June 2019.

[BEIJING] As Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares for one of the most important meetings of his seven-year rule, he appears to have Donald Trump on the brain - even if he won't say so directly.

In conversations with other leaders ahead of his sit down tomorrow with the US president on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Japan, Mr Xi spared no opportunity to paint the US as the bad guy in China's spiraling trade conflict, while avoiding the provocative step of naming Mr Trump personally.

In remarks to African leaders this morning, Mr Xi took a not-so-subtle swipe at Mr Trump's policy slogan, "America first." Warning against "bullying practices," Mr Xi said that "any attempt to put one's own interests first and undermine others' will not win any popularity."

Mr Xi then used remarks on the digital economy to call for a "fair and equitable market environment" and the "completeness and vitality of global supply chains." It comes as Mr Trump singles out Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Co, arguing its connections to the government mean it could allow Beijing to spy through its equipment, and urging countries to avoid the company while developing 5G networks.

Last night, Mr Xi told South Korean President Moon Jae-in that he opposed protectionism as well as any "external" influence on the two countries' relationship.

Mr Xi's verbal shadow-boxing with Mr Trump underscores the delicate balance he needs to strike: He must avoid coming across at home as weak in dealing with the US president but he also can't risk worsening the trade war by provoking Mr Trump's personal ire. While Mr Trump has hammered China with multiple rounds of tariffs, he maintains he enjoys a personal friendship with Mr Xi and has spoken of the Chinese leader with admiration.

"There's a clear desire on the part of Xi and the Chinese side more generally to express their dissatisfaction with the way the US side has handled negotiations," said Trey McArver, co-founder of Beijing-based research firm Trivium China. But "he's still about to meet with the guy," Mr McArver added. "It speaks to the difficult position Xi is in: Wanting to get a deal done but also wanting to set some ground rules for negotiations."

Mr Xi's comments at the G-20 fit that broader pattern. Chinese state media has published defiant editorials blaming the US for the trade impasse and proclaiming Chinese strength, but avoided citing Mr Trump or other trade officials by name. Beijing has issued veiled threats about cutting off the supply of rare earths to the US, but officials have stopped short of specifics.

Past experience lends credence to Mr Xi's approach. On the campaign trail and in the White House, Mr  Trump has variously criticised opponents for being short, ugly and boring. After taking office, he described Kim Jong Un as "rocket man," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as "dishonest and weak," and London Mayor Sadiq Khan as a "national disgrace."

Mr Xi has more often been the object of Mr Trump's verbal affections. Mr Trump has called him a "great guy" and a "good man." He described Mr Xi as the "king of China" after Mr Xi's decision to abolish presidential term limits last year, has boasted of serving him "the most beautiful chocolate cake" and had his grandchildren perform songs for the Chinese leader and his wife.

At times, Beijing has reciprocated with flattery of its own. At the G-20 meeting two years ago in Hamburg, a senior official said Chinese negotiators had "read with respect Mr Trump's books on the art of the deal." Diplomats made early overtures to the First Family, inviting Trump's daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner on trips to China at galas at the Chinese Embassy in DC.

Still, Chinese officials have begun to harden their rhetoric as the trade war drags on. The foreign ministry recently accused Secretary of State Michael Pompeo of propagating "lies and fallacies," while the Communist Party's flagship People's Daily newspaper described Republican Senator Marco Rubio - who has proposed legislation to prevent Huawei from seeking damages in US patent courts - as an "anti-China clown."

But for all that, Mr Trump himself and his lead trade negotiators have been spared personal insult by Beijing. That's even after the U.S. president officially defined China as a "strategic competitor" last year, hiked tariffs multiple times and stepped up efforts to kneecap flagship Chinese companies from Huawei to ZTE. China's economy is already growing at its slowest pace since the 1990s.

As Mr Xi prepares for his third high-stakes G-20 meeting with Mr Trump, he may be asking himself once again: how much is a friendship worth?

BLOOMBERG