BEIJING — President Donald Trump nodded appreciatively as China’s Xi Jinping showcased a centuries-old temple in Beijing’s Forbidden City. He clapped along as the two leaders watched a Chinese children’s opera. And the pair shared a traditional tea and salutations of friendship.
Trump’s two-day visit to China opened with diplomatic niceties aplenty Wednesday. But thorny issues await the two world leaders behind closed doors, including potential tensions over trade and China’s willingness to put the squeeze on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.
Ahead of his arrival, 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.
White House officials said Trump would make the same pitch to Xi in private when the two sit down together 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 poured on the pomp and pageantry for Trump’s arrival. The president and first lady Melania Trump were greeted at the airport by dozens of children who waved U.S. and Chinese flags and jumped up and down. 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.
By Jonathan Lemire and Jill Colvin