BEIJING — President Trump heaped praise on President Xi Jinping of China on Thursday, blaming Trump’s own predecessors for China’s widening trade surplus with the United States and saying he was confident that Xi could defuse the threat from North Korea.
Trump’s warm words, on a state visit to China replete with ceremony but short of tangible results, showed a president doubling down on his gamble that by cultivating a personal connection with Xi, he can push the Chinese leader to take meaningful steps on North Korea and trade.
In public, Trump projected an air of deference to China that was almost unheard of for a visiting US president. Far from attacking Xi on trade, Trump saluted him for leading a country that he said had left the United States “so far behind.” He said he could not blame the Chinese for taking advantage of weak US trade policy.
Behind closed doors, US officials insisted, Trump forcefully confronted Xi about the chronic trade imbalances between the two countries. He also pressed China to take tougher measures toward North Korea, including a suspension of oil shipments.
In neither case did the Chinese make significant concessions, nor did Trump express dissatisfaction with their response.
It was a remarkable moment in the story of China’s rise and the United States’ response to it, with Trump’s performance suggesting a tipping point in great-power politics. By concluding that the United States can better achieve its goals by flattering a Chinese leader than by challenging him, Trump seemed to signal a reversal of roles: The United States may now need China’s help more than the other way around.
Trump marveled at the reception Xi had given him, from a full-dress military parade in Tiananmen Square to a sunset tour of the Forbidden City.
He congratulated him on consolidating power at a recent Communist Party congress, declaring, “Perhaps now more than ever we have an opportunity to strengthen our relationship.”
“You’re a very special man,” he told Xi in an appearance before reporters, at which they did not take questions.
Xi, for his part, did not return Trump’s personal praise, seeming to treat him like any other US leader.
“I told the president that the Pacific is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States,” Xi said, after reciting his well-worn line that the two countries could peacefully coexist if they respected each other’s different political systems.
Trump administration officials said that the leaders’ exchanges had had a harder edge behind the scenes. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that Trump had, in effect, used flattery to appeal to Xi to do more to isolate North Korea.
“Our president has been very clear with President Xi that he takes the view that, ‘You are a very powerful neighbor of theirs, you account for 90-plus percent of their economic activity, you’re a strong man,’” Tillerson said, channeling Trump. “’You can, I’m sure, solve this for me.’”
Tillerson dismissed Trump’s contention that trade deficits were the United States’ fault as “a little bit of tongue in cheek” in the midst of a much tougher discussion. During their meeting, he said, Robert Lighthizer, US trade representative, ticked off the long history of trade imbalances, and warned they could not be allowed to continue.
The one tangible gain from Trump’s trip — $250 billion worth of business agreements between US and Chinese companies — was viewed as a token of Chinese good will. Many of the deals are preliminary and will take years to come to fruition. They broke no new ground in areas such as technology, where the United States is losing market access.
Tillerson himself played down the significance of any progress that was made in trade talks. “Quite frankly, in the grand scheme of a trade deficit, the things that have been achieved thus far are pretty small,” he said.
Still, Chinese analysts said the deals underscored Xi’s desire to give Trump a victory. “OK relations with Trump’s America is very important for both Xi’s glory and his strategy,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University.