China rolled out the red carpet for President Donald Trump on Thursday, treating him to an elaborate welcome ceremony on the plaza outside the Great Hall of the People before the leaders turned to their private talks. Trump looked on approvingly as a Chinese honor guard played the national anthems of both countries, cannons boomed and soldiers marched. He clapped and smiled as children waving U.S. and Chinese flags and flowers screamed and jumped wildly. But thorny issues await Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping behind closed doors, including potential tensions over trade and China’s willingness to put the squeeze on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.
Before arriving, Trump delivered a stern message to Beijing, using an address to the National Assembly in South Korea to call on nations to confront the North. ”All responsible nations must join forces to isolate the brutal regime of North Korea,” Trump said. ”You cannot support, you cannot supply, you cannot accept.” He called on ”every nation, including China and Russia,” to fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions against North Korea enforcing sanctions aimed at depriving its government of revenue for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The latest measure, adopted after a September atomic test explosion, the North’s largest yet, banned imports of its textiles and prohibited new work permits for overseas North Korean laborers. It also restricted exports of some petroleum products.
Trump’s words drew a caustic response from North Korean state media, which issued a statement Wednesday saying the U.S. should ”oust the lunatic old man from power” and withdraw its ”hostile policy” toward Pyongyang ”in order to get rid of the abyss of doom.” White House officials said Trump would underscore his public messages about North Korea when he and Xi sit down for private talks on Thursday. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and Trump is expected to demand that the nation curtail its dealings with Pyongyang and expel North Korean workers from its borders. Trump has praised China for taking some steps against Pyongyang, but he wants them to do more.
China is increasingly disenchanted with North Korea over its nuclear weapons development but remains wary of using its full economic leverage over its traditional ally. It fears triggering a collapse of the North’s totalitarian regime that could cause an influx of refugees into northeastern China and culminate in a U.S.-allied unified Korea on its border. China also poured on the pomp and pageantry for Trump’s arrival Wednesday. The president and first lady Melania Trump were greeted at the airport by dozens of jumping children who waved U.S. and Chinese flags. The couple spent the first hours of their visit on a private tour of the Forbidden City, Beijing’s ancient imperial palace. It’s usually teeming with tourists but was closed to the public for the presidential visit.
The Trumps walked alongside Xi and his wife through the historic site and admired artifacts from centuries’ past. Trump posed for photos and, with a wave of his hand, joked to Xi about the reporters watching. And he laughed and clapped along during an outdoor opera featuring colorful costumes, martial arts and atonal music. Trump said afterward he’s ”having a great time” in China. But much of the remainder of his stay in Beijing will revolve around deep negotiations over trade with Pyongyang and other matters. The president also is expected to showcase a round of business deals signed Wednesday by Chinese and U.S. companies that the two sides say are valued at $9 billion.
Among them: a pledge by China’s biggest online retailer to buy $1.2 billion of American beef and pork. Such contract signings are a fixture of visits by foreign leaders to China and are aimed at blunting criticism of Beijing’s trade practices.
It’s ”a way of distracting from the fact that there’s been no progress in China on structural reform, market access or the big issues that the president has tried to make progress on with regard to China,” said Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Trump has made narrowing the multibillion-dollar U.S. trade deficit with China a priority for his administration – and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Wednesday the deals were a step in the right direction. ”Achieving fair and reciprocal treatment for the companies is a shared objective,” Ross said. ”Today’s signings are a good example of how we can productively build up our bilateral trade.” China’s trade surplus with the United States in October widened by 12.2 percent from a year earlier, to $26.6 billion, according to Chinese customs data released Wednesday. The total surplus with the United States for the first 10 months of the year rose to $223 billion.