Donald Trump and Xi Jinping put their professed friendship to the test Thursday as the least popular US president in decades and the newly empowered Chinese leader met for tough talks on trade and North Korea.
Xi greeted Trump with more pageantry at the imposing Great Hall of the People, next to Tiananmen Square, on the second day of his visit to China — the crucial stop in a five-nation tour of Asia.
The two leaders have stepped up the flattery but the US leader is expected to prod Xi to make more efforts to slash China’s massive trade surplus with the United States and curb its economic ties with North Korea.
The trip comes as Trump faces the lowest approval ratings for a US president in seven decades, and with the one-year anniversary of his election Wednesday spoiled by big Democrat wins in state and mayoral votes.
Meanwhile, Xi cemented his status as the most powerful Chinese leader in a generation at a Communist Party congress last month, when his name was inscribed into the constitution.
On Trump’s first state visit to China, a military band played the US and Chinese anthems, ceremonial cannon fire erupted, and the two leaders reviewed a military honour guard just across from Tiananmen Square — the site of the army’s deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989.
Children waved US and Chinese flags at the two leaders, who were due to hold private talks.
“I believe the visit will achieve positive and important results with concerted efforts of both sides,” Xi said when he gave Trump a tour of the Forbidden City on Wednesday.
Trump praised Xi for his “great political victory” before arriving in Beijing, where the Chinese leader treated him to a tour of the former imperial palace, where they watched an opera on Wednesday night.
“Emphasising pomp over substance is the Chinese way. With President Trump, they think that the state-visit plus treatment will impress him and buy China some goodwill,” Bonnie Glaser, China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Agence France-Presse.
Trump was so pleased with the first day of his visit that he used special technology to circumvent China’s internet censorship system and post a message to Xi on Twitter, which is banned in the country.
“THANK YOU for the beautiful welcome China! @FLOTUS Melania and I will never forget it!” wrote Trump, who also posted an Agence France-Presse photo of his visit.
Both leaders say they have struck up a friendship since Trump treated Xi to a plush visit at the billionaire’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for their first meeting in April.
But the leaders of the world’s top two economies will turn their attention to vexing matters on Thursday.
“The flattery will not have significant substantive effect,” said Sam Crane a Chinese history expert at Williams College.
But the pageantry is helpful to Xi’s consolidation of power at home, Crane said.
“Symbolically all of this is being framed in China as Trump coming to pay homage to the ‘core’ leader,” he said.
‘Cannot support’ Pyongyang
Xi and Trump will oversee a signing ceremony for around $20 billion worth of agreements between Chinese and US companies, a day after $9 billion in deals were already announced.
But the two leaders will likely tussle over the massive trade imbalance.
Trump will also seek greater efforts from Xi to restrict trade between China and North Korea, whose economic wellbeing depends on its ties with Beijing.
Before arriving in Beijing, Trump used a speech at the South Korean parliament to urge China and Russia to fully implement UN sanctions, downgrade diplomatic relations, and sever all trade and technology ties with the North.
“You cannot support, you cannot supply, you cannot accept,” Trump said.
He later tweeted a warning to North Korea to avoid “a fatal miscalculation. Do not underestimate us. AND DO NOT TRY US.”
Though China has backed the UN sanctions, US officials want Chinese authorities to clamp down on unauthorised trade along the North Korean border.
“Without China doing what they need to do we’re not going to get to a peaceful solution to this problem,” a senior US official said. “Without them really participating lock, stock and barrel in this it’s not going to work.”
But experts doubt China will take the kind of steps that Trump wants, such as halting crude oil exports to the North. Beijing fears that squeezing Pyongyang too hard could cause the regime to collapse.
“Xi might ‘do more’ on North Korea but he will never do as much as the US wants, because (China) has a strong interest in maintaining regime stability in North Korea,” Crane said.
“I suspect Xi will continue to press Trump to open up negotiations with Kim as a price for China to ‘do more’ on North Korea.” AFP