Trump, aiming to coax Xi, bets on flattery

President Donald Trump heaped praise on President Xi Jinping of China on Thursday, blaming past U.S. administrations for China’s yawning trade surplus with the United States and saying he was confident that Xi could defuse the threat from North Korea. 

Trump’s warm words, on a state visit to China replete with ceremony but short of tangible results, showed a president doubling down on his gamble that by cultivating a personal connection with Xi, he can push the Chinese leader to take meaningful steps on North Korea and trade. 

In public, Trump projected an air of deference to China that was almost unheard-of for a visiting U.S. president. Far from attacking Xi on trade, Trump saluted him for leading a country that he said had left the United States “so far behind.” He said he could not blame the Chinese for taking advantage of weak U.S. trade policy. 

Behind closed doors, U.S. officials insisted, Trump forcefully confronted Xi about the trade imbalances between the two countries. He also pressed China to take tougher measures toward North Korea, including a suspension of oil shipments. 

In neither case did the Chinese make significant concessions, nor did Trump express dissatisfaction with their response. 

It was a remarkable moment in the story of China’s rise and the United States’ response to it, with Trump’s performance suggesting a tipping point in great-power politics. By concluding that the United States can better achieve its goals by flattering a Chinese leader than by challenging him, Trump seemed to signal a reversal of roles: The United States may now need China’s help more than the other way around. 

Trump marveled at the reception Xi had given him, from a full-dress military parade in Tiananmen Square to a sunset tour of the Forbidden City. He congratulated him on consolidating power at a recent Communist Party congress, declaring, “Perhaps now more than ever we have an opportunity to strengthen our relationship.” 

“You’re a very special man,” he told Xi in an appearance before reporters, at which they did not take questions. 

Xi, for his part, did not return Trump’s personal praise, seeming to treat him like any other U.S. leader. 

“I told the president that the Pacific is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States,” Xi said, after reciting his well-worn line that the two countries could peacefully coexist if they respected each other’s political systems. 

Trump administration officials said that the leaders’ exchanges had had a harder edge behind the scenes. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that Trump had, in effect, used flattery to appeal to Xi to do more to isolate North Korea. 

“Our president has been very clear with President Xi that he takes the view that, ‘You are a very powerful neighbor of theirs, you account for 90-plus percent of their economic activity, you’re a strong man,'” Tillerson said, channeling Trump. “'You can, I’m sure, solve this for me.'” 

Tillerson dismissed Trump’s contention that trade deficits were the United States’ fault as “a little bit of tongue in cheek” in the midst of a much tougher discussion. During their meeting, he said, Robert Lighthizer, U.S. trade representative, listed the long history of trade imbalances and warned that the situation could not be allowed to continue. 

The one tangible gain from Trump’s trip — $250 billion worth of business agreements between U.S. and Chinese companies — was viewed as a token of Chinese goodwill. Many of the deals are preliminary and will take years to come to fruition. They broke no new ground in areas, like technology, where the United States is losing market access. 

Tillerson himself played down the significance of any progress that was made in trade talks. “Quite frankly, in the grand scheme of a three- to five-hundred-billion-dollar trade deficit, the things that have been achieved thus far are pretty small,” he said. 

Still, Chinese analysts said the deals underscored Xi’s desire to give Trump a victory. “OK relations with Trump’s America is very important for both Xi’s glory and his strategy,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University. 

To many Chinese, Trump came to Beijing as a kind of supplicant, needing help on critical issues. “It is no longer possible for an American president to come to China and tell China to do this or that,” said Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. 

In 2009, President Barack Obama paid his first visit to China at a time when the United States was reeling from the financial crisis and the Chinese economy was ascendant. As with Trump, Chinese authorities did not allow questions during his appearance with then-President Hu Jintao. State television did not broadcast a town-hall meeting that Obama held with students. 

On later visits, however, Obama made headway with China on issues like climate change. Like his predecessors, he regularly raised human rights concerns. In 2014, the White House persuaded the Chinese to allow questions during his news conference with Xi, which was viewed at the time as a major symbolic victory. 

Trump administration officials blamed the Chinese for the refusal to take questions Thursday, but it was not clear whether the Americans had pressed the issue. Nor was it clear how energetically Trump had brought up human rights with Xi, even in private. He said nothing about the issue in public, beyond a general commitment to individual rights and the rule of law. 

His failure to draw attention to human rights “will have a demonstrable negative impact on the lives of dissidents in China,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia. “External pressure is the only reason Chinese government treats dissidents better.”  

Trump’s conciliatory words on trade were particularly striking, given his protectionist threats during the 2016 presidential campaign. At the end of his appearance with Xi, a U.S. reporter asked whether Trump still believed, as he once said, that China was “raping” the United States through unfair trade practices. (Trump did not respond.) 

On North Korea, the leaders’ meeting brought similarly mixed results. Trump, officials said, asked Xi to cut off oil shipments, to shut down North Korean bank accounts, and to send home tens of thousands of North Koreans who work in China. 

North Korea has been striving to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can hit the United States mainland. But Pyongyang has not conducted a missile testin nearly two months, which some analysts see as providing a diplomatic opening. 

In a sign that China was doing something, even incremental, to curb ties, some travel agencies in the border town of Dandong were told this week to curtail their tourist business in the North. 

North Korea has become a popular destination for Chinese travelers who want inexpensive foreign trips. Shutting down tours cuts off an avenue for Chinese currency for the North Korean regime, although hardly a major one. 

On Saturday, the United States signaled its resolve to put military pressure on North Korea, announcing that three aircraft carrier groups would carry out large-scale naval maneuvers in the Western Pacific. At the same time, Trump seemed to accept Xi’s pleas for patience. 

“President Xi took that view that the sanctions are going to take a little while, that he didn’t expect immediate results,” Tillerson said. “In terms of how much stress it will create on them, time will tell.”  

For his part, Trump expressed confidence that Xi could solve the crisis. “If he works on it hard, it will happen,” he said at a meeting with business executives. “There’s no doubt about it.” 

At their joint appearance, Trump turned to the Chinese president and declared, “A great responsibility has been placed on our shoulders. It is truly a great responsibility.” 

His observation captured the essential nature of the visit: a grand exercise in personal diplomacy between two strong-willed leaders, who seemed determined to get along. Xi arranged for Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball star, to attend a state dinner for Trump in a lavishly decorated room in the Great Hall of the People. 

Trump showed the Chinese leader a video — later played again at the state dinner, on a large screen — of his 6-year-old granddaughter, Arabella Kushner, singing a song and reciting Chinese poetry for Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan. Xi, according to state media, pronounced it an “A+” performance.

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