Trump says he’s developed friendship with Xi as first day of US-China summit ends

US president’s remarks in Florida come as the US launches a huge cruise missile attack on targets in Syria

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 April, 2017, 3:21am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 April, 2017, 2:49pm

US President Donald Trump said at a summit meeting with Xi Jinping that he would have a very strong relationship with the Chinese president and the two men have already developed a friendship.

Trump’s comments came towards the end of the first day of the two heads of states’ meetings in Florida and as the US launched a surprise cruise missile attack on targets in Syria.

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During a photo shoot for the press before the two presidents dined at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, the US president said: “It is a great honour to have the President of China and his incredibly talented wife. We had a long discussion already. So far, I have gotten nothing. Absolutely nothing, but we have developed a friendship,” Trump said. “I think, long-term, we are going to have a very, very great relationship and I look very much forward to it.”

Just a couple of hours after the dinner, Trump tweeted and said he was honoured to host his Chinese guests.

A number of the president’s top aides were present, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, White House Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, chief strategist Stephen Bannon and Ivanka Trump,

Kushner was seated by Xi and his wife. Bannon near the end of the table.

It is not known if the two presidents discussed the Middle East in discussions on Thursday. Formal talks are due to take place on Friday.

It was widely expected that North Korea and trade issues would be the major topics the two heads of state would discuss.

The massive barrage of cruise missiles into Syria on Thursday night was in retaliation for this week’s chemical weapons attack against civilians, US officials said.

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Trump ignored shouted questions from reporters about Syria and North Korea at the dinner photo opportunity for the press.

Xi was earlier greeted at Palm Beach airport by the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who recently became an unpaid federal employee in the capacity of special assistant to her father, are also now in Palm Beach. Ivanka arrived with her three children on Air Force One with her father and First Lady Melania Trump.

“This week’s meeting in Mar-a-Lago [between Trump and Xi] is arguably the most important foreign policy gathering of the still-young Trump administration,” Richard Haass, President of the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, said in an op-ed piece published a day ahead of the meeting. “There is a school of thought that predicts this relationship will become adversarial. So far, the two countries have proved the historical pessimists wrong.”

Xi arrived at 1:35 pm EDT (1:35 am HK), and was greeted by Tillerson, who arrived ahead of the US president.

Among the most difficult issues on Friday will be trade and economic reform in China.

With Pyongyang conducting missile tests nearly every week, Xi’s delegation may be more inclined to strike some kind of agreement on a new approach toward its militaristic neighbour than it will be on trade.

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The US has recorded massive trade deficits with China for many years, which helped build support for Trump during the US election last year. Trump hammered China and his political opponents for allowing trade regulations and currency policies that limit how much the US can sell in China, leading to job losses at home.

“The chief goal of our trade policies is the prosperity of the American worker,” Tillerson said in a statement issued after his arrival in Florida. “To that end, we will pursue economic engagement with China that prioritises the economic well-being of the American people.”

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The US trade deficit with China has exceeded US$300 billion for each of the past five years, according to US Census Bureau data. At US$54 billion already in the first two months of 2017, that trend appears to be intact for this year also.

In its most recent annual report to the US Congress, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission said China’ “economic liberalisation has fallen far short of global expectations.”

“It has become increasingly apparent that under the leadership of Chinese President and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Xi Jinping, China’s domestic reform agenda is aimed at strengthening the hand of the state and maintaining CCP control— not promoting economic liberalisation,” the report said.

Trump, having stumbled in his effort to convince enough lawmakers to pass a health care overhaul promised as part of his presidential campaign, can’t afford to ignore expectations that he’ll get compromises from China on trade.

Their meeting comes after several days of escalating tension as a result of military provocations by North Korea. The inclusion of Mattis and Tillerson, who arrived separately from the president, earlier in the day underscores the importance that security issues related to North Korean missile tests will play in the series of meetings scheduled to run until Friday afternoon.

“Because the [Trump] administration is still researching what its China policy is going to be, I expect this to be very much a getting-to-know-you kind of meeting,” Steve Orlin, President of the National Committee on US China Relations, said in an interview.

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“With the US administration’s focus on North Korea, I expect there will be some fairly detailed discussion about how China can work more closely with the United States to prevent the North Koreans from going further, especially to prevent them from having the capability to reach the mainland US with its missile technology and nuclear capability,” Orlin added.

A series of formal meetings between the two delegations, including a working lunch, will take place at Mar-a-Lago on Friday.