Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) waves to the press as he walks with US President Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, April 7, 2017.
JIM WATSON / AFP
US President Donald Trump ditched the bombastic anti-Chinese rhetoric and hailed “tremendous progress” at the end of a superpower summit with counterpart Xi Jinping Friday, that was overshadowed by events in Syria.
Trump declared his relationship with Xi as “outstanding” at the end of a high-stakes but studiously familiar first meeting between the pair at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
“We have made tremendous progress in our relationship with China,” Trump said without getting into specifics. “I think truly progress has been made.”
The friendly tone was a far cry from Trump’s acerbic campaign denouncements about China’s “rape” of the US economy and his vow to punish Beijing with punitive tariffs.
Xi reciprocated Trump’s warm words, saying the summit had “uniquely important significance” and thanking Trump for a warm reception.
We “arrived at many common understandings,” Xi added “the most important being deepening our friendship and building a kind of trust.”
Behind closed doors Trump’s grandson and granddaughter sang a traditional Chinese ballad — “Jasmine Flower” — and recited poetry for their honored guests, according to Chinese state media.
And the Chinese leader has plans to return the American hospitality, according to the official news agency Xinhua, which reported that Xi invited Trump to a state visit in China later this year.
– Winter White House –
The start of the summit came on a night of high drama as Trump not only met his nearest peer in economic world power for the first time but also launched his first military strike on a state target.
Although China is not implicated in the Syrian war, Trump will have been keen to appear resolute and decisive as the rivals size each other up and spar over trade and North Korea.
Trump informed the Chinese leader personally of the strike and Chinese officials later warned against a “further deterioration” of the situation in Syria.
The US leader appeared confident when Xi arrived at the Florida venue, even hazarding a joke about his own reputation as a dealmaker.
“We had a long discussion already. So far, I have gotten nothing. Absolutely nothing,” he said to laughs from the delegation.
“But I can see that, I think long-term, we are going to have a very, very great relationship and I look very much forward to it.”
Trump’s barnstorming presidential campaign last year appeared to set him on course for conflict with China, which he accused of rigging forex markets and cheating at trade to steal American jobs.
But he has moderated his tone since his election and he welcomed the 63-year-old Chinese leader to Mar-a-Lago’s ornate dining room with an open agenda designed to enable the pair build a rapport.
– Trade and jobs –
Xi and his wife did not stay at Mar-a-Lago, but at a resort a short drive down the palm-fringed coast that was watched by marksmen, tactical units and a coastguard cutter.
The two leaders were joined Thursday evening by US first lady and former model Melania Trump and Peng Liyuan — a celebrated folk singer whom Trump hailed as a “great, great celebrity.”
Xi had arrived at the meeting with a gift of “tweetable deliverables,” sources said — peace offerings on Trump’s signature issues of trade and jobs that were intended to smooth ties.
At the top of the list, according to a source briefed on Xi’s plans, was a package of Chinese investments aimed at creating more than 700,000 American jobs — the same number China’s regional rival Japan pledged to Trump during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Mar-a-Lago visit in February.
In return, Xi hoped to obtain assurances from Trump on punitive tariffs and the delay of an American arms sale to Taiwan, at least until after a major Communist Party meeting later this year.
Trump’s position on democratically ruled Taiwan — which China considers a breakaway province — has been an major irritant since he accepted a protocol-breaking phone call from the Taiwanese president after his election victory.
– Unrelenting scandal –
The summit stakes, both domestic and international, were high.
If mishandled, disagreements over approaches to North Korea or bilateral trade could destabilize Northeast Asia or tank the global economy.
On the domestic political front, Xi is preparing for a party congress that could cement his grip on power for years to come, and needs to show he can deal with the US leader as an equal.
The Trump White House is worried Pyongyang is just months away from marrying nuclear and long-range missile technology to put the US West Coast within striking distance.
The timing of Thursday’s attack on Syria, during Trump’s meeting with Xi, will probably give weight to Washington’s threats to deal with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs unilaterally if necessary.
Although Beijing has condemned the missile tests, it has hesitated to take serious action against Pyongyang, fearing that the country’s collapse would generate a flood of refugees across its borders and leave the US military on its doorstep.