Trump and China’s President Xi form a personal bond, but will it yield Trump’s promised deals?

Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Trump pose together before dinner in April at Trump's Mar-a-Lago compound in Palm Beach.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

The two men smiled as they strolled amid the swaying palm trees. They dined on pan-seared Dover sole, aged prime strip steak and Sonoma Coast Chardonnay beneath glimmering chandeliers. They shared an antique sofa for the group photo with their wives.

President Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping were calling each other friend by the end of their springtime retreat at Trump’s Florida club, Mar-a-Lago — a relationship that would have been unimaginable months earlier. During his campaign, Trump complained Xi was “ripping us off,” threatened him with trade sanctions and vowed that the closest the Chinese leader would come to a state dinner was a trip to McDonald’s.

On Monday in Japan, Trump expressed his new view: “I like him a lot. I consider him a friend. With that being said, he represents China; I represent the United States.”

Expect the good times to continue when Xi figuratively rolls out an ultra-wide red carpet to host Trump in Beijing — a “state visit-plus” in the words of the Chinese ambassador to the United States.

After arriving Wednesday afternoon, Trump and First Lady Melania Trump are scheduled to join Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, for tea, a tour of the ancient Forbidden City, an opera performance and dinner.


The Chinese, much like the Japanese and South Koreans on the first two stops of Trump’s five-nation Asia tour, believe the gilded treatment is the best way to play to Trump’s ego and disarm him, and thereby blunt his demands that China open up its economy and take a harder tack against North Korea, according to experts and former government officials.

Trump’s dynamic with Xi, however, is easily the most consequential of all his foreign relations, politically and diplomatically, given China’s greater prominence — its economy is second in size only to the United States’ — as well as its superpower aspirations and the centrality of Trump’s past China attacks to his election.

“The Chinese strategy will be to treat Trump with enormous respect and give him nothing,” said David Dollar, the U.S. Treasury Department’s economic and financial emissary to China from 2009 to 2013, and now a scholar at the Brookings Institution.

The Trump administration insists it is getting what the president wants from China, especially as the two nations work to further isolate North Korea in hopes of halting that provocative country’s drive toward nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Before leaving South Korea for Beijing, Trump said Xi “has been very helpful. We’ll find out how helpful soon. But he really has been very, very helpful.”

H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security advisor, told reporters before Trump departed Washington last weekend, “What the president will do is build on what was already a very strong personal relationship that they developed at Mar-a-Lago.”

McMaster said China, North Korea’s patron and primary trading partner, now understands the breadth of the threat that Pyongyang poses.

“In the old days, you’d hear, ‘Well, this is really a problem between, you know, North Korea and the United States,’” McMaster said. Now, he continued, “everyone acknowledges, China especially,” that “this is a problem between North Korea and the world.”

China has given the Trump administration some help in imposing tougher sanctions on North Korea through the United Nations, though it has not taken the unilateral actions against Pyongyang that Trump seeks. As for trade, most experts believe China has gotten off lightly.

Trump, during a news conference in Japan on Monday, said he would be working to alter the “very unfair trade situation” and promised “very, very strong action” against unnamed countries that he said were mistreating American workers. Yet, a year after his election, Trump still was not specific about what he hoped to accomplish with Xi.

Analysts say Trump will need to strike a balance — continuing to treat Xi as a friend without compromising American interests or appearing too deferential. Their meeting comes at a time when Xi would seem to have the advantage: While Trump is weakened by scandal, legislative setbacks and low poll ratings, China’s Communist Party recently granted Xi powers not seen since Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s rule a half-century ago.

“What the president needs to do is not come in and sort of anoint the pope,” said James Jay Carafano, a foreign policy and defense specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation who has advised Trump. “On the other hand, nobody wants the thing to melt down either.”

The Chinese are known to embarrass visitors if it suits their purpose, unsettling the guests and leaving them just a tad uncertain whether the treatment is deliberate.

During President Obama’s first visit, his hosts assured him he would have opportunities to speak directly to the Chinese people, only to curtail his events. During his final visit, last year, Beijing airport staff failed to provide stairs to Air Force One’s familiar front exit door, forcing the president to disembark unceremoniously at the plane’s rear; former Obama aides insist the fault went no higher than the grounds crew.

Trump, however, repeatedly recalled the incident as a clear snub during his presidential campaign, to buttress his claim that under Obama the United States had lost stature.

“I’ve got to tell you, if that were me, I would say, ‘You know what, folks, I respect you a lot but close the doors, let’s get out of here,’” Trump said during one campaign appearance. “It’s a sign of such disrespect.”

China experts expect Xi to avoid such actions this week. Trump showed during his first presidential trip abroad, to the Middle East, that he appreciates an opulent display of respect.

Xi is known for his ability to engage others on a personal level, beyond simple talking points, by virtue of extensive preparation.

“He’s not needy. He rarely if ever asks for anything,” said Ryan Hass, a career diplomat who accompanied Obama to meetings with Xi. “It’s more of a peer-to-peer discussion for how the two leaders see the world.”

Hass said that style probably appeals to Trump, “who otherwise comes into contact with a lot of people who are making requests.”

Trump’s China diplomacy got off to a bad start. After the election, he took a call from Taiwan’s leader, offending Beijing and upending the decades-old “one China” formula under which the United States recognizes the Beijing government and agrees that Taiwan is part of China.

Once Trump took office, he backtracked, declining another call from the Taiwanese president in deference to Xi and China. Trump also backed off his repeated campaign threat to label China as a currency manipulator.

Unlike Obama, who pressed Xi on issues including trade, climate change and human rights, Trump has asked for little. For Xi, that’s a near perfect scenario, analysts say.

“I don’t think Xi is looking for a lot from the United States,” said Hass. “His preference would be to have more space, more strategic space” to exert influence in the region and manage his country.

That is not to say the Chinese do not have issues with the unpredictable American president.

“They just don’t like the general direction of the mood here with regard to China becoming a focus of concern,” said Christopher K. Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the CIA. He added, “It’s more a worry about what’s coming.”

Johnson said Xi may also worry that Trump could become more aggressive in his demands for economic concessions and help in containing North Korea. In the past, Chinese leaders have blamed their country’s vast bureaucracy for their failure to deliver on U.S. demands. Xi, given his new authority, will have a harder time making that argument.

“And,” Johnson said, “I would expect President Trump to play that card in his discussions.”

Bierman reported from Washington and Bennett from Seoul and Tokyo. Staff writer Jonathan Kaiman and special correspondent Gaochao Zhang in Beijing contributed to this report.