In China, Trump Places His Bets on Flattering Xi Jinping

It was a remarkable moment in the story of China’s rise and America’s response to it, with Mr. Trump’s performance suggesting a tipping point in great-power politics. By concluding that the United States can better achieve its goals by flattering a Chinese leader than by challenging him, Mr. Trump seemed to signal a reversal of roles: the United States may now need China’s help more than the other way around.

Mr. Trump marveled at the reception Mr. Xi had given him, from a full-dress military parade in Tiananmen Square to a sunset tour of the Forbidden City. He congratulated him on consolidating power at a recent Communist Party congress, declaring, “Perhaps now more than ever we have an opportunity to strengthen our relationship.”

“You’re a very special man,” he told Mr. Xi in an appearance before reporters, at which they did not take questions.

Mr. Xi, for his part, did not return Mr. Trump’s fulsome personal praise, seeming to treat him like any other American leader.

“I told the president that the Pacific is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States,” Mr. Xi said, after reciting his well-worn line that the two countries could peacefully coexist if they respected each other’s different political systems.

Trump administration officials said that the leaders’ exchanges had had a harder edge behind the scenes. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson told reporters that Mr. Trump had, in effect, used flattery to appeal to Mr. Xi to do more to isolate North Korea.

“Our president has been very clear with President Xi that he takes the view that, ‘You are a very powerful neighbor of theirs, you account for 90-plus percent of their economic activity, you’re a strong man,’” Mr. Tillerson said, channeling Mr. Trump. “‘You can, I’m sure, solve this for me.’”


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Mr. Tillerson dismissed Mr. Trump’s contention that trade deficits were America’s fault as “a little bit of tongue in cheek” in the midst of a much tougher discussion. During their meeting, he said, Robert Lighthizer, the United States trade representative, ticked off the long history of trade imbalances, and warned they could not be allowed to continue.

The one tangible gain from Mr. Trump’s trip — $250 billion worth of business agreements between American and Chinese companies — was viewed as a token of Chinese good will. Many of the deals are preliminary and will take years to come to fruition. They broke no new ground in areas, like technology, where the United States is losing market access.

Mr. Tillerson himself played down the significance of any progress that was made in trade talks. “Quite frankly, in the grand scheme of a three-to-five hundred billion-dollar trade deficit, the things that have been achieved thus far are pretty small,” he said.

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Still, Chinese analysts said the deals underscored Mr. Xi’s desire to give Mr. Trump a victory. “O.K. relations with Trump’s America is very important for both Xi’s glory and his strategy,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University.

To many Chinese, Mr. Trump came to Beijing as a kind of supplicant, needing help on critical issues. “It is no longer possible for an American president to come to China and tell China to do this or that,” said Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

In 2009, President Barack Obama paid his first visit to China at a time when the United States was reeling from the financial crisis and the Chinese economy was ascendant. As with Mr. Trump, the Chinese authorities did not allow questions during his appearance with then-President Hu Jintao. State television did not broadcast a town-hall meeting that Mr. Obama held with students.

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On later visits, however, Mr. Obama made headway with China on issues like climate change. Like his predecessors, he regularly raised human rights concerns. In 2014, the White House persuaded the Chinese to allow questions during his news conference with Mr. Xi, which was viewed at the time as a major symbolic victory for Mr. Obama.

Trump administration officials blamed the Chinese for the refusal to take questions on Thursday, but it was not clear whether they had pressed the issue. Nor was it clear how energetically Mr. Trump had brought up human rights with Mr. Xi, even in private. He said nothing about the issue in public, beyond a general commitment to individual rights and the rule of law.

His failure to draw attention to human rights “will have a demonstrable negative impact on the lives of dissidents in China,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia. “External pressure is the only reason Chinese government treats dissidents better.”


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Mr. Trump’s conciliatory words on trade were particularly striking, given his protectionist threats during the 2016 presidential campaign. At the end of his appearance with Mr. Xi, an American reporter asked whether Mr. Trump still believed, as he once said, that China was “raping” the United States through unfair trade practices. (Mr. Trump did not respond.)

On North Korea, the leaders’ meeting brought similarly mixed results. Mr. Trump, officials said, asked Mr. Xi to cut off oil shipments, to shut down North Korean bank accounts, and to send home tens of thousands of North Koreans who work in China.

North Korea has been striving to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can hit the United States mainland. But Pyongyang has not conducted a missile test in nearly two months, which some analysts see as providing a diplomatic opening.

In a sign that China was doing something, even incremental, to curb ties, some travel agencies in the border town of Dandong were told this week to curtail their tourist business in the North.

North Korea has become a popular destination for Chinese travelers who want inexpensive foreign trips. Shutting down tours cuts off an avenue for Chinese currency for the North Korean regime, though hardly a major one.

On Saturday, the United States signaled its resolve to put military pressure on North Korea, announcing that three aircraft carrier groups would carry out large-scale naval maneuvers in the Western Pacific. At the same time, Mr. Trump seemed to accept Mr. Xi’s pleas for patience.

“President Xi took that view that the sanctions are going to take a little while, that he didn’t expect immediate results,” Mr. Tillerson said. “In terms of how much stress it will create on them, time will tell.”

For his part, Mr. Trump expressed confidence that Mr. Xi could solve the crisis. “If he works on it hard, it will happen,” he said at a meeting with business executives. “There’s no doubt about it.”


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At their joint appearance, Mr. Trump turned to the Chinese president and declared, “A great responsibility has been placed on our shoulders. It is truly a great responsibility.”

His observation captured the essential nature of the visit: a grand exercise in personal diplomacy between two strong-willed leaders, who seemed determined to get along. Mr. Xi arranged for Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball star, to attend a state dinner for Mr. Trump, held in a lavishly decorated room in the Great Hall of the People.

Mr. Trump showed the Chinese leader a video — later played again at the state dinner, on a large screen — of his six-year-old granddaughter, Arabella Kushner, singing a song and reciting Chinese poetry for Mr. Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan. Mr. Xi, according to state media, pronounced it an “A+” performance.

Correction: November 9, 2017

An earlier version of this article misstated China’s trade imbalance with the United States. China has a trade surplus, not a deficit.

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