President Donald Trump toured parts of Beijing on Wednesday after arriving for a high-stakes state visit where he’ll look for wins from Xi Jinping on everything from the U.S.’s massive trade deficit to reining in North Korea.
The third leg of Trump’s five-nation Asia tour comes after stops in Tokyo and Seoul. Addressing South Korea’s parliament earlier Wednesday he had strong words for Kim Jong Un — even as he remained open to a potential deal on North Korea’s nuclear weapons. And he called on China, Kim’s main ally and biggest trading partner, to cut him off.
The state visit, which will meld intimate sit-downs with Xi alongside state dinners and gala events joined by dozens of business leaders, is China’s answer to his hosting Xi at his Florida estate, Mar a Lago, earlier this year. The main event is on Thursday, when Trump and Xi are scheduled to hold a bilateral meeting and make joint statements to reporters.
On Wednesday afternoon, Trump and First Lady Melania Trump joined Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, for an opera performance and a tour of the Forbidden City — the imperial palace that served as the political center of China’s government for almost 500 years. China’s state-run media said Trump showed Xi video clips of his granddaughter singing in Chinese.
The stop is by far the most important part of Trump’s trip, given that he believes China is central to reining in North Korea. And Trump’s personal brand of diplomacy — based in professions of deep friendship to get what he wants — will be tested by his ability to come away with Chinese promises to halt what he sees as predatory trade practices.
While Trump repeatedly bashed China on the campaign trail for its trade and currency policies, on this trip he has an incentive to cut deals. His approval rating has plunged to an all-time low, while Xi has tightened his grip on power to become China’s strongest leader in decades.
On Wednesday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced deals worth about $9 billion that involving companies like General Electric, Caterpillar and Honeywell International. Few details were released, and Ross said more deals would be unveiled on Thursday.
During a briefing in Japan alongside Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump cited his friendship with Xi, an awkward moment given the rivalry — which sometimes boils over into enmity — between Japan and China.
“I very much look forward to meeting with President Xi who is just off his great political victory,” Trump said in a tweet on Wednesday.
In remarks to reporters on Air Force One on Sunday, Trump rejected assertions he was entering the summit in a weakened state. He cited a soaring stock market, low unemployment, a strengthened military and gains against Islamic State in the Middle East.
“We are coming off some of the strongest numbers we’ve ever had, and he knows that and he respects that,” Trump said. “He’s a friend of mine. We’re friends.”
Keeping that friendship may require tempering some of his previous criticisms of China over North Korea. While Trump left the door open in Seoul to meeting Kim or doing a deal to defuse the nuclear tensions, he also lashed out at the regime in extremely personal terms, especially over its treatment of its citizens. He accused Kim of turning North Korea into “a hell that no person deserves.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president’s spokeswoman, said Trump intends to make a final determination on whether North Korea is a state sponsor of terrorism at the end of his five-nation Asia tour next week.
A U.S. administration official, briefing reporters aboard Air Force One, said Trump is genuinely open to talks with Kim, but sees no evidence of that he would be willing to meet the first condition for talks: putting his nuclear weapons program on the table, with a strict protocol for verification. This official called that position a non-starter for the United States.
As for China, a senior State Department official who asked not to be identified discussing the administration’s strategy, said the goal was to persuade leaders to enforce United Nations Security Council resolutions against Pyongyang on a granular level, out in the provinces, where small companies do business with North Korea.
The U.S. has long argued that China holds the key to choking off the regime’s economy. This time the U.S. will ask that China take more concrete steps — such as strict customs enforcement — to ensure curbs on trade are properly enforced, the official said. Without China doing more, the official added, “we’re not going to get to a peaceful solution to this problem.”
China’s view is it has already done a lot to put the economic screws on Kim, and it is reluctant to push to the point it risks a messy regime collapse on its border — with the prospect that could bring U.S. troops even closer to its soil.
Trump will arrive with executives from some 40 companies seeking deals in sectors ranging from energy to aviation to financial services. One of the biggest under negotiation would see China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. invest billions of dollars to create thousands of jobs in hurricane-hit areas of Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The president will be joined by Stephen Miller, a senior policy adviser and Steve Bannon loyalist who has pushed a far sharper and tougher line on China, and frames the future of geopolitics as a war between the countries. Notably, however, Trump left economic adviser Peter Navarro, another strong China critic, at home.
(c) 2017, Bloomberg · David Tweed, Nick Wadhams