If Chinese President Xi Jinping was trying to impress US President Donald Trump with lavish treatment during his visit to Beijing, it appears to have worked.
Trump was effusive in his praise of Xi and China, even speaking admiringly of Beijing’s ability to run up a huge trade surplus at US expense, which Trump blamed on his predecessors.
He described as “tremendous” his meetings with Xi on topics including trade, North Korea and controlling opioids, despite the lack of major breakthroughs on easing access to China for US companies or further pressuring North Korea to halt its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“My feeling toward you is an incredibly warm one,” Trump said, standing beside Xi.
The two had spent the previous afternoon and evening with their wives, touring the Forbidden City and dining there, a privilege rarely extended to visiting leaders.
“As we said, there’s great chemistry, and I think we’re going to do tremendous things, both for China and the United States,” Trump said.
That chemistry took shape in April, when the two first met at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, softening the edges on sharp differences over trade and North Korea, and concern in the West over an increasingly prosperous China’s growing assertiveness.
While Trump enjoys a chummy, golfing-buddy relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he has shown admiration for autocratic leaders such as Xi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.
Stylistically, the leaders of the world’s two largest economies are opposites: Xi is scripted and cautious, cultivating a down-to-earth image; Trump, a developer and reality TV star before his upset election win a year ago, is known for his off-the-cuff style, freewheeling tweets, and rhetorical hyperbole, both negative and positive.
The two also face different political realities at home: Xi has never been more powerful, solidifying his grip at a twice-a-decade Communist Party Congress last month; Trump is saddled with low public approval ratings and dogged by investigations into Russian links to his election campaign, though he and his aides claim credit for the US stock market’s record highs.
Admiration and Leverage
But Trump appears to recognize the clout that China – and by extension, Xi – wields as a rising power, recently likening Xi to a “king” – and is convinced he needs Beijing’s leverage with North Korea to deal with his biggest global security challenge.
The transactional currying of favor cuts both ways: China is eager to deflect US pressure to do more on North Korea, and to avoid an escalation in trade tensions that seemed inevitable after Trump, during his presidential campaign, accused China of “raping” the United States with its trade practices.
“China attaches great importance to guanxi (personal relationships) and it’s especially important, given you have a top-down approach to leadership in China, to see Xi get on so well with a foreign leader,” said Wang Huiyao, head of the Center for China and Globalization, a think tank.
“It’s much easier to tackle structural problems with a good atmosphere,” he said.
Some of their more personal exchanges won prominent play in Chinese social media, including the video of Trump’s granddaughter singing to “Grandpa Xi” and “Grandma Peng”.
An exchange between the two leaders in the Forbidden City when Xi explained to Trump that China has the longest unbroken cultural history of any current nation was especially popular.
“We are called the descendants of dragons,” Xi tells Trump.
“That’s great,” Trump replies and laughs.
Trump went so far as to call Xi a “very special man” in a joint briefing on Thursday, and seemed so enthusiastic that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked if Trump had been too deferential.
“I didn’t detect that at all,” Tillerson said.
However, the White House yielded to Beijing’s wish that the two leaders not take questions during a joint press statement.
Xi did not openly reciprocate Trump’s personal praise, maintaining his usual stern demeanor, although he grinned when Trump said he did not blame China for the trade gap and again when he said Xi was someone who got things done.
“I don’t blame China,” Trump said of the trade deficit.
“Who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit.”