BEIJING – President Donald Trump lavished praise on Chinese leader Xi Jinping here Thursday, touting “great chemistry” between them while refusing to criticize his counterpart for the trade imbalance that Trump railed against during his campaign.
Speaking at a joint appearance with Xi in front of business leaders, Trump said the U.S. trade relationship with China is “a very one-sided and unfair one.” But, he quickly added: “I don’t blame China. Who can blame a country that is able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump accused China of “raping” the U.S. economy and threatened to label the country a “currency manipulator” – even though economic analysts have said Beijing has not artificially inflated the renminbi for years. In his remarks here, Trump reiterated that the United States must “change its policies,” but he offered no details about actions his administration will pursue.
“We’ve gotten so far behind on trade with China and frankly many other countries,” Trump said ahead of a bilateral meeting with Xi, before adding he has “great respect” for Xi for “representing China.”
Trump blamed past U.S. administrations “for having allowed it to get so far out of kilter. We’ll make it fair, and it’ll be tremendous for both of us. My feeling toward you is incredibly warm. We have great chemistry. I think we’ll do tremendous things, China and the U.S.”
Their high-stakes, two-day summit is being closely watched for signs of how the leaders of the world’s two biggest economies will be able to cooperate on issues from North Korea to trade to cybersecurity amid mounting challenges in the Asia-Pacific. Trump is hoping to win concessions from Xi, but the Chinese leader is in a strong position after having consolidated power at a Communist Party congress last month.
The two countries announced memorandums of understanding to increase trade by $253 billion, which the leaders said was a sign of greater cooperation.
In contrast to Trump’s effusive praise, Xi appeared reserved and spoke in carefully scripted language about “win-win” cooperation and a “new starting point” for the bilateral relationship – language Beijing has employed in a bid to get the United States to agree to allow China to operate in its “sphere of influence” in Asia without meddling. Xi did not talk in personal terms about Trump.
The United States and China had clashed on issues from cybersecurity to trade in the final years of the Obama administration, though they had struck a landmark climate deal during Barack Obama’s 2014 visit to Beijing that served as a prelude to the Paris climate accord.
Trump has announced intentions to withdraw the United States from that agreement, but Xi has pledged to make China a leader on reducing carbon emissions.
Xi vowed to work together in the “spirit of mutual respect and mutual benefit.”
During a joint statement with Xi in front of reporters, Trump reiterated his harsh criticism of North Korea and said he and Xi discussed their shared goal of pursuing the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula. “We call on all responsible nations to join together to stop arming and financing and even trading with the murderous North Korean regime,” Trump said.
But the two leaders did not take questions from reporters, a win for Xi, who oversees an authoritarian system that has sought to sharply limit free speech and press freedoms.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, briefing reporters after the meetings, said the U.S. delegation was “quite pleased” because there was “no disagreement” on North Korea. Trump pressed Xi to fully implement the economic sanctions on Pyongyang authorized by the United Nations Security Council, Tillerson said, and Xi outlined additional steps his government is taking to crack down on banks doing business with the North.
“There was no space between both of our objectives,” Tillerson said. But he cautioned that Xi also emphasized that “it will take time” for the new sanctions to create stress on the North.
On trade, Tillerson called the deals struck at the summit relatively “small in the grand scheme of things,” given a trade deficit of more than $300 billion a year.
“In terms of really getting at some of the fundamental imbalance that exists, we have a lot more work to do,” Tillerson said. Asked about Trump’s change in tone on trade from the campaign, Tillerson said the remarks were intended as “a little bit tongue in cheek.” But he added that the imbalance has stretched for decades and was fanned by the “benign neglect” from past U.S. administrations.
“His characterization is that you cannot not blame a large developing country for doing what they have to do,” Tillerson said.
Chinese state media appeared pleased with the summit. The Global Times, a newspaper known for its nationalist rhetoric, declared that Trump “respects our head of state and has repeatedly praised President Xi Jinping in public.”
Tao Wenzhao, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s Institute for American Studies, said in an interview that Trump’s decision not to blame China “shows that he understands the complex reasons behind the trade imbalance. The trade imbalance cannot be corrected overnight.”
On Trump’s first full day in China – the third stop on a five-country, 12-day trip through Asia – Xi greeted him with a lavish reception at the Great Hall of the People, a display that included three horn players in red uniforms, a military band and ceremonial cannon fire.
Trump, who has suggested he would like to stage a military parade in Washington over the July 4 weekend, seemed impressed. He called the parade “magnificent.”
“I already had people calling from all parts of the world,” he added. “They were watching. Nothing you can see is so beautiful.”
The Chinese have described Trump’s trip to the country as a “state visit plus” and so far have lavished him with special treatment. He arrived Wednesday afternoon for a sunset tour of the Forbidden City, the ornate Chinese imperial palace stretching from the Ming to Qing dynasties, before taking in a performance of the Peking Opera.
Trump effusively thanked Xi for hosting him and first lady Melania Trump at a dinner after his arrival a night earlier, saying their meal was scheduled to last less than half an hour because Trump was tired after a long day of traveling from Seoul. Instead, Trump said, it went on for more than two hours.
“I enjoyed every minute of it,” Trump said. At another point, Trump told Xi: “You are a very special man.”
Trump arrived in China while being dogged with political problems back home and facing the lowest approval numbers of his presidency. And despite the pageantry surrounding the visit and an eagerness of the Chinese to reset their relationship with the United States, Xi – now arguably his nation’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong – appeared emboldened to demand concessions from the United States.
Asked if Trump had been too deferential to Xi on the Chinese leader’s home turf, Tillerson replied: “I didn’t detect that at all.”