BEIJING – President Donald Trump lavished praise on Chinese leader Xi Jinping ahead of a formal bilateral meeting here Thursday, touting "great chemistry" between them and declaring their relationship a "great one."
In brief remarks, Trump said the two nations could work together "to solve world problems for many, many years to come," and he thanked Xi for hosting him and first lady Melania Trump at a dinner after his arrival a night earlier.
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.
Trump offered virtually no criticism of China in his remarks, even though he has railed against a trade imbalance in China's favor.
"The U.S. has to change its policies. We've gotten so far behind on trade with China and frankly many other countries," Trump said, 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."
Trump said the dinner on Wednesday was scheduled to last just 20 minutes because Trump was tired after traveling from South Korea. But it lasted more than two hours, he said, adding: "I enjoyed every minute of it."
In contrast, Xi appeared reserved and spoke in carefully scripted language about "win-win" cooperation and a "new starting point" for the bilateral relationship. 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."
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.
But the elaborate stagecraft and flattery belies the real issues – and real tensions – between the two nations. Trump arrived in China on the heels of Xi consolidating his power at China's Party Congress last month, whereas Trump is facing his lowest approval numbers yet back home.
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 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 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."