PALM BEACH – What was billed as a showdown between the leaders of the United States and China over trade and North Korea ended with little sign of confrontation Friday — or of concrete progress in resolving their differences.
President Donald Trump had predicted a “very difficult” meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. After their first face-to-face at the Mar-a-Lago resort, he trumpeted they had developed an “outstanding” relationship.
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U.S. officials said the two sides agreed to increase cooperation on trying to get North Korea’s to abandon its nuclear weapons program, and China acknowledged the need for more balanced trade with the U.S.
But the two days of meetings appeared heavier on optics than substance. The most powerful message for the Chinese leader may have been Trump’s decision to launch U.S. missile strikes at Syria.
Those strikes added weight to Trump’s threat last week to act unilaterally against North Korea’s weapons program — although a much heavier risk would be required to take military action against the nuclear-armed North, which has its artillery and missiles trained on a key U.S. ally, South Korea.
The U.S. administration’s first recourse is very likely to be economic — pushing China to crack down on Chinese banks and companies said to provide North Korea access to the international financial system.
In a possible harbinger of the kind of punishments Washington could inflict, a leading Chinese telecoms company, ZTE, was fined nearly $900 million in March for shipping sensitive U.S.-made technology to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.
“They recognize that shows our clear determination to crack down on this sort of activity,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told reporters.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. and China “agreed to increase cooperation and work with the international community to convince the DPRK to peacefully resolve the issue and abandon its illicit weapons programs.” DPRK stands for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Tillerson said Trump and Xi noted the urgency of the threat of North Korea’s weapons program and that they reaffirmed their commitment to a denuclearization of the divided Korean Peninsula.
On trade issues, Trump called for China to “level the playing field” for U.S. workers, stressing the need for reciprocal market access. He also noted the importance of protecting human rights, and asked China to adhere to international norms in the seas of East Asia, Tillerson said.
As a candidate and president, Trump has taken an aggressive posture toward China, labeling Beijing a “tremendous problem” and arguing that lopsided trade deals with China shortchange U.S. businesses and workers. Some $347 billion of the $502 billion trade deficit recorded by the U.S. last year was with China.
Trump said in a brief appearance before reporters Friday that he and Xi made “tremendous progress” in their talks and that he believes “lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away.” He did not elaborate.
For Xi, who is entering a twice-a-decade Communist Party congress in the fall, the meeting with Trump was more about stabilizing the critical U.S.-China relationship and burnishing his foreign policy credentials than achieving a breakthrough. The only other foreign leader to be hosted at Mar-a-Lago during Trump’s presidency so far is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a close U.S. ally.
Speaking alongside Trump, Xi said the two delegations discussed important topics and established a good friendship and working relationship. He noted the historic responsibility of both countries — the world’s largest economies and emerging military rivals — to work toward peace and stability.
The visit was overshadowed by the missile barrage aimed at Syria, announced shortly after Trump and Xi wrapped up dinner Thursday night. The strikes were retaliation against Syrian President Bashar Assad for a chemical weapons attack against civilians caught up in his country’s long civil war.
China’s response was muted. Its U.N. ambassador, Liu Jieyi, never mentioned the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, or the U.S. airstrikes, at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Friday. Liu focused instead on the need for a political solution to the six-year Syrian conflict.