Welcomed to China with an outsized dose of pomp and pageantry, U.S. President Donald Trump pronounced himself wowed by Beijing’s lavish greeting Wednesday at the start of a two-day visit in which he aims to employ flattery, scolding and cajolery to press the rising Asian power on trade and North Korea.
Trump, saddled with consistently low approval ratings at home, is duelling with a newly emboldened Chinese President Xi Jinping, who recently consolidated power. The American president’s every utterance will be studied by allies anxious to see if his inward-looking “America First” mantra could cede power in the region to China.
A visit sure to include tough negotiations on multiple policy fronts began with a full display of diplomatic niceties: The president and first lady Melania Trump were greeted at the airport by dozens of children who waved U.S. and Chinese flags and jumped up and down. The couple sipped tea with Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, and received a private tour of the historic Forbidden City — Beijing’s ancient imperial palace — including a performance by young opera students before dinner.
Trump said afterward that he’s “having a great time” in China and at one point threw open his arms and appeared to exclaim “wow.”
Looking forward to a full day of meetings with President Xi and our delegations tomorrow. THANK YOU for the beautiful welcome China! @FLOTUS Melania and I will never forget it! pic.twitter.com/sQoUWIGAiQ
Before arriving in Beijing on Wednesday, Trump used an address to the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, to deliver a stern message to China, North Korea’s biggest trade partner. Trump urged “responsible nations” to unite and stop supporting North Korea.
“You cannot support, you cannot supply, you cannot accept,” he said, calling on “every nation, including China and Russia,” to fully implement recent UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea.
Trump’s words drew a caustic response from North Korean state media, which issued a statement Wednesday saying the U.S. should “oust the lunatic old man from power” and withdraw its “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang “in order to get rid of the abyss of doom.”
Trump is expected to demand that China curtail its dealings with Pyongyang and expel North Korean workers. Trump has praised China for taking some steps against Pyongyang but urged them to do more, as administration officials believe the border between China and North Korea remains a trade corridor.
“I want to just say that President Xi — where we will be tomorrow, China — has been very helpful. We’ll find out how helpful soon,” Trump said Tuesday night in Seoul. “But he really has been very, very helpful. So China is out trying very hard to solve the problem with North Korea.”
The White House is banking on Trump’s personal rapport with Xi to drive the negotiations. Trump has frequently showered praise on Xi, who recently became the nation’s most powerful leader in decades, including with a trip to Trump’s Florida estate for a summit.
“He’s a powerful man. I happen to think he’s a very good person. Now with that being said, he represents China, I represent the U.S.A., so, you know, there’s going to always be conflict,” Trump recently told the Fox Business Network. “People say we have the best relationship of any president-president, because he’s called president also. Now some people might call him the king of China. But he’s called president.”
White House officials point to the Trump-Xi summit in Florida this spring, an event partly defined by Trump telling his Chinese counterpart about the missile strike he ordered on Syria while the two men dined on chocolate cake. But experts in the region suggest that Xi may have the advantage over Trump.
“Trump keeps portraying his relationship with Xi as great pals but that’s wildly naive,” said Mike Chinoy, an expert on East Asia policy at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California. “The Chinese have figured out how to play Trump: flatter him. And there’s nothing the Chinese do better than wow foreign diplomats.”
‘Trump has mortgaged the whole U.S.-China relationship to get the Chinese on board with the North Korea plan. He is now coming at it from a position of weakness.’– Mike Shinoy, University of Southern California
Trump talked tough during his campaign about fixing American’s trade relationship with China and labeling it a “currency manipulator.” But he has signalled that he would take it easy on Beijing if it will help with the nuclear threat from North Korea.
“Trump has mortgaged the whole U.S.-China relationship to get the Chinese on board with the North Korea plan,” Chinoy said. “He is now coming at it from a position of weakness.”
White House officials have said that if Trump were to chide Xi about human rights or democratic reforms, he would likely do it privately. Andrew Nathan, a political science professor and China expert at Columbia University, said Trump’s “infatuation” with Xi was reminiscent of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s fascination with Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China.
“For Trump, Xi is wish fulfilment: ‘I wish I could be as powerful as that guy!”‘ Nathan said.
Trump arrived in Beijing after two days in Seoul, where he largely avoided the inflammatory rhetoric that has defined his approach to Pyongyang. But he also warned North Korea in his speech to “not underestimate us. And do not try us.”
He also sounded an optimistic note while in South Korea, saying confidently, if vaguely, that “ultimately, it’ll all work out” while shifting views and expressing hope that diplomacy could resolve the tensions. Trump also underlined U.S. military options, noting that three aircraft carrier groups and a nuclear submarine had been deployed to the region.
But he said “we hope to God we never have to use” the arsenal.