President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping opened their high-stakes summit at Trump’s Florida beach resort Thursday, with the urgent threat of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and tensions over trade on the agenda.
Xi’s visit was overshadowed, though, by a U.S. missile barrage on an air base in Syria in response to this week’s chemical weapons attack against civilians, which the U.S. blamed on President Bashar Assad. The U.S. announced the missile attack shortly after Xi and his wife left the Mar-a-Lago estate Thursday night.
Trump appeared lighthearted earlier Thursday as he greeted Xi at Mar-A-Lago, gesturing and pointing to journalists as they tussled to get a shot of the two leaders together for the first time.
Ahead of the dinner, Trump said he and Xi already had had a long discussion and had “developed a friendship,” and then joked, “I have gotten nothing, absolutely nothing.”
The White House said the location was selected to give the two days of discussions a more relaxed feel. A number of Trump’s top advisers were in attendance, including his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Outside the dining room where the two delegations gathered for a lavish dinner, Mar-a-Lago club members packed the patio for dinner.
Trump and first lady Melania Trump greeted Xi and his wife at Mar-a-Lago before making their way to dinner.
On Air Force One on the way to Florida Trump pointed to the crisis in North Korea as a top priority in the meetings with Xi. He said he thinks China will “want to be stepping up” in trying to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
While Trump would not say what he wants China to do specifically, he suggested there was a link between “terrible” trade agreements the U.S. has made with China and Pyongyang’s provocations. He says the two issues “really do mix.”
The President has said that if China doesn’t exert more pressure on North Korea, the U.S. will act alone.
Both as a candidate and President, Trump has taken an aggressive posture toward China, labeling Beijing a “tremendous problem” and arguing that lopsided trade deals with China shortchange American businesses and workers. Last week, the President predicted in a tweet that his meeting with Xi would be “very difficult.”
The White House has downplayed expectations for a breakthrough on issues like trade and tariffs, insisting that the 24-hour summit is mostly an introductory meeting for the two leaders. And within Trump’s administration, there are still divisions over how to approach China.
According to U.S. and foreign officials, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and economic adviser Gary Cohn are leading the charge for boosting ties and exploring the potential for greater economic cooperation. But economic adviser Peter Navarro, author of the book “Death by China: Confronting the Dragon — a Global Call to Action,” prefers trying to isolate China, in keeping with Trump’s “America First” mantra.
Patrick Cronin, a China expert with the Center for a New American Security, said the Trump administration does not have “a reconciled trade and economic policy yet, and the differing views on China in the White House underscore that.”
Ahead of the summit, Trump signed a pair of executive orders focused on reducing the U.S. trade deficit. The moves appeared to be a shot at China, which accounted for the vast bulk — $347 billion — of last year’s $502 billion trade deficit. Chinese exports to the U.S. totaled some $388.1 billion last year.
Anthony Ruggiero, an East Asia expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said China may be more willing to accommodate Trump on trade and economic issues than on regional security issues, including North Korea. Xi, a shrewd political operator, is unlikely to want to rock the boat ahead of a Communist Party conclave later this year that will install new leadership.
Xi is also expected to seek assurances that Trump will not interfere in the territorial dispute over the South China Sea or question the “One China” policy by reaching out to Taiwan’s leader again, as he did during the transition. The move infuriated Beijing, leading Trump to eventually reiterate his commitment to the decades-old policy.
Previous White Houses have held China accountable for its human rights record, something this administration has made very little mention of, whether in China or elsewhere. It also remains to be seen whether the Obama administration’s deal with Beijing to curb Chinese cybertheft for economic gain and its hacking of U.S. companies will be addressed.