In Beijing, Trump declines to hit President Xi Jinping on trade: ‘I don’t blame China’

BEIJING — President 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 campaign, Trump threatened to label China 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 saying he had “great respect” for Xi for “representing China.”

Trump blamed past 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 cyber security 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, 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, even as the U.S. leader praised him repeatedly.

The United States and China had clashed on issues from cyber security to trade in the final years of the Obama administration, though they had struck a landmark climate deal during 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 has responded to Trump’s push to increase pressure on North Korea over its nuclear program, but U.S. officials have said they hope Beijing will do more to cut off trade and financial flows with North Korea.

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.

On Trump’s first full day in China — the third stop on a five-country, 12-day trip through Asia —  Xi greeted Trump 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” and said the world was watching.

“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 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 as they enjoyed each others’ company.

“I enjoyed every minute of it,” Trump said. At another point, Trump told Xi: “You are a very special man.”

The elaborate stagecraft and flattery belies the real issues — and real tensions — between the two nations. Trump arrived in China while being dogged with political problems back home and facing the lowest approval numbers of his presidency.

On Tuesday night, the president received more bad news, in the form of a Democratic rout in the off-year elections across the nation. Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia whom Trump endorsed, lost to Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who was propelled to victory in the state by highly motivated Democrats who turned out to vote.

Trump is expected to press the Chinese to put more diplomatic and financial pressure on North Korea to cease its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and has called out China by name several times already on the trip, to ask them to do more.

Trade will be another topic of discussion. The president, whose top trade advisers include Robert E. Lighthizer and Peter Navarro — author of the book “Death by China” — has long railed against the trade imbalance with China, which he argues is harming the American worker, and is likely to use this visit to pressure Xi for more favorable terms.

But despite the pageantry surrounding the visit and an eagerness on the part of China to reset their relationship with the United States, Xi — who is now arguably his nation’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong — and the Chinese also feel emboldened to demand concessions from the United States

“One of the things I find interesting is that they also seem quite confident, though, that if they’re not able to push the reset button on the relationship, they’re ready to turn in the other direction as well,” said Christopher K. Johnson, senior adviser in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, briefing reporters before the trip. “So if they’re not able to turn it around, I think we could see sort of a snarkier-looking position from the Chinese on the bilateral relationship after the summit’s over.”

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