PALM BEACH, FLORIDA – U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping started their first meeting Thursday, focusing on ways to address the rising threat posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs, as well as trade issues, including Washington’s massive trade deficit with Beijing.
With North Korea launching yet another ballistic missile a day before the two-day summit at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump hopes Xi will agree to increase pressure on Pyongyang by exercising Beijing’s considerable economic leverage over its neighbor.
Trump said earlier Thursday that he thinks China “will be stepping up” its efforts to deter North Korean provocations. The U.S. leader has said that if Beijing does not pressure Pyongyang in addressing its nuclear ambitions, Washington will take unilateral action.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One en route to Florida, Trump also complained about China’s trade practices, saying, “We have been treated unfairly and have made terrible trade deals with China for many, many years.”
Aside from North Korea and trade, the leaders of the world’s two largest economies will discuss China’s militarization of disputed areas of the South China Sea and cybersecurity, as well as concern about human rights and religious freedom in China, according to senior U.S. officials.
At the Mar-a-Lago estate, Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan were greeted by Trump and first lady Melania Trump before making their way to dinner.
Ahead of the dinner, Trump said he and Xi “have had a long discussion already,” and that they “have developed a friendship.”
“And I think long term we’re going to have a very, very great relationship, and I look very much forward to it,” Trump said as his top aides and Cabinet members, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross who has called China “the most protectionist country” among large economies, were seated alongside the table.
Since he was on the campaign trail, Trump has repeatedly criticized what he sees as China’s unfair trade practices, its perceived reluctance to help address North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and Beijing’s coercive measures in the South China Sea, a strategically significant waterway also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and other smaller neighbors.
White House officials have said Trump will aim to build a “results-oriented relationship” with Xi in economic, strategic and other areas. The meeting, especially talks on trade and North Korea, could set the tone of U.S.-China relations for the coming years.
“President Trump really views this meeting as a first step toward building a constructive and a results-oriented relationship that’s going to deliver benefits to both countries,” a senior White House official said.
“We would like to work on North Korea together,” the official said, requesting anonymity. “This is in some ways a test of the relationship.”
Since Trump was sworn in on Jan. 20, North Korea has launched a series of ballistic missiles in what foreign policy analysts see as a test of his policy toward the country.
The Trump administration has been conducting a policy review of North Korea that includes military options.
There is also speculation that Pyongyang may carry out a major provocative act such as a sixth nuclear test or the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile around the anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung on April 15.
China has suspended coal imports from North Korea until the end of this year in line with U.N. sanctions on the country. Beijing has served as a lifeline for Pyongyang, accounting for some 90 percent of its external trade and providing it with oil and food under the name of humanitarian assistance.
But China apparently has been reluctant to impose strong pressure on North Korea, fearing any instability in the regime could see a wave of refugees flood into northeastern China and result in the loss of a strategic “buffer zone” from South Korea, a U.S. ally.
On economic issues, Trump is “very concerned” about how trade imbalances between the United States and China affect American workers and industry, according to a White House official.
“President Trump will convey to President Xi the importance of establishing an economic relationship that is fair, balanced and based on the principle of reciprocity,” the official said.
As part of efforts to cut the $347 billion U.S. trade deficit with China as of last year, Washington wants to reduce “systemic trade and investment barriers” Beijing has created that lead to an uneven playing field for U.S. companies, he said.
During the campaign, Trump pledged to label Beijing a currency manipulator on his first day in office and impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports, but neither measure has yet been implemented.