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Airstrike in Syria Overshadows Meeting Between Trump and Xi
President Trump welcomed President Xi Jinping of China here for a first meeting on Friday that ended up being less about great-power collaboration than a chance for the Chinese leader to witness a raw display of American military might.
Hours after Mr. Trump ordered Tomahawk cruise missiles to be fired on a Syrian airfield, he pressed Mr. Xi to use China's leverage to curb another rogue government, North Korea's. Mr. Trump repeated his warning that if China did not do more, the United States would act on its own to constrain the belligerent actions of North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong-un.
The president also brought up the chronic trade imbalance between China and the United States. A senior administration official said Mr. Trump had told Mr. Xi that the two sides needed to begin addressing that deficit immediately, prompting China to propose a 100-day plan to overhaul the trade relationship between the world's largest economies.
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said Mr. Trump had told the Chinese leader that there needed to be "concrete steps to level the playing field for American workers." A second senior administration official said the tone in the one-on-one exchanges on trade had been "tough," though he said there was chemistry between the two men.
The 100-day project was the only tangible announcement to come out of a meeting that few expected to be much more than a get-acquainted exercise, held at Mr. Trump's palm-fringed resort, Mar-a-Lago. In the end, even the rituals of superpower summitry were largely overshadowed by the drama unfolding in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Around 8:40 p.m. on Thursday, as the leaders were finishing a dinner of pan-seared Dover sole and dry-aged prime New York strip, Mr. Trump told Mr. Xi that he had ordered a barrage of missiles to be fired at Syria to punish it for the deadly chemical weapons attack by the government of Bashar al-Assad. According to Mr. Tillerson, Mr. Xi told the president he understood that a military response was necessary "when people are killing children."
Mr. Tillerson's account of Mr. Xi's reaction was somewhat more supportive than the Chinese government's official response. On Friday, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, repeated China's call for a "political settlement" in Syria to prevent the situation from deteriorating further.
Administration officials said the missile strike had not disrupted the meeting. In fact, they said, it might have strengthened Mr. Trump's hand as he called on the Chinese to exercise more pressure on North Korea. While officials noted that North Korea poses different, and in some ways more formidable, challenges than Syria, the parallel of a rogue government that possesses weapons of mass destruction was not lost on the Chinese.
Mr. Xi told Mr. Trump he agreed that the threat posed by North Korea had reached a "very serious stage," according to Mr. Tillerson. Days before the meeting, Pyongyang tested another intermediate-range ballistic missile. But the Chinese made no new offers about how to deal with Mr. Kim's government, according to an American official.
The Chinese also brought no concessions on trade to the meeting, beyond the 100-day plan. Mr. Trump intends to sign an executive order to penalize countries for dumping steel into the American market, a move that would be aimed at China. Administration officials declined to discuss the order, and it was not clear whether they had presented it to the Chinese.
"There are areas where they clearly want to work with us," said the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin. He said the administration's "objective is to increase our exports to them."
Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, said the 100-day plan was ambitious, given that trade negotiations usually stretch for years. "It's a very big sea change in the pace of discussions," he said.
In their spare public comments, the two leaders glossed over longstanding sources of friction. Facing each other under chandeliers and across a horseshoe table at Mar-a-Lago, the presidents spoke of their budding personal ties.
"We have made tremendous progress in our relationship with China," Mr. Trump said, adding, "Lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away." Mr. Xi replied in Mandarin that the talks had accomplished many things, "most important being deepening our friendship and building a kind of trust in keeping with the Sino-U.S. working relationship and friendship."
The summit meeting bore similarities to President Barack Obama's meeting with Mr. Xi at the Sunnylands estate in Southern California in 2013, though it was shorter. Before lunch, Mr. Trump took Mr. Xi on a brief tour of the manicured grounds at Mar-a-Lago, gesturing to points of interest and the vista of the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
On Friday morning, Mr. Trump's wife, Melania, and Mr. Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan, visited a middle school that specializes in arts, dance, music and theater. They listened as 80 girls sang "Astonishing," a song about the empowerment of women. On Thursday evening, Mr. Trump's granddaughter Arabella sang in Mandarin to the two couples, and her brother Joseph greeted them.
The two sides also agreed to create a new high-level dialogue, led by Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi, to discuss issues ranging from diplomacy and security to economics and social problems. On Friday morning, Mr. Trump's top advisers kicked off the dialogue, meeting for breakfast with their Chinese counterparts at two tables on the patio at Mar-a-Lago.
In addition to Mr. Xi and his wife, the Chinese delegation included four members of the Politburo – a rare turnout of Communist Party brass to an American summit meeting. Mr. Xi invited Mr. Trump to visit China in 2017, and the president accepted, though Mr. Tillerson said he would have to consult a calendar to see if it could happen this year.
Reading from a White House statement, Mr. Tillerson said the United States sought a relationship with China based on "mutual interest." That is one of several phrases that the Chinese government frequently uses, and it can be interpreted to mean deferring to Beijing's interests on delicate issues like Taiwan, Tibet or the South China Sea.
American officials said the Chinese had pushed for the United States to use several other phrases in the statement, including "win-win solutions," which Mr. Tillerson used during a visit to China last month and for which he was criticized by China experts. The Chinese also pushed to issue a joint statement, which the Trump administration rejected.
Mr. Tillerson did not say whether Mr. Trump had pressed Mr. Xi on specific human rights issues.
"I don't think you have to have a separate conversation, somehow separate our core values around human rights from our economic discussions, our military-to-military discussions or our foreign policy discussions," he said. "They're really embedded in every discussion."
Perhaps the greatest difference between this meeting and the ones Mr. Xi held with Mr. Obama had to do with the environment, a major area of cooperation between the two countries during the previous administration. Mr. Trump has made it clear that climate change is no longer a priority for the United States, and the Chinese appeared to drop it from the agenda as well.
"That was not a major part of the discussion," Mr. Ross said, "nor do I recall the Chinese specifically raising it."
[Source: By Mark Landler, The New York Times, Palm Beach, Fla, 07Apr17]
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