PALM BEACH, Fla.—U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he had made progress in talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and expected them to overcome many problems, a marked contrast to the stridently tough rhetoric of Trump’s 2016 election campaign toward the Chinese regime.
Sitting across from Xi on the second day of a Florida summit overshadowed by U.S. missile strikes in Syria overnight, Trump declared that his relationship with the Chinese leader was outstanding after they discussed trade irritants and concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program.
Trump had said he intended to raise concerns about China’s trade practices and press Xi to do more to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions during his visit to the Spanish-style Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, though no major deals on either issue are expected.
The Republican president, who took office on Jan. 20, tweeted last week that the United States could no longer tolerate massive trade deficits and job losses and that his meeting with Xi “will be a very difficult one.”
The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
On Friday, there was a change of tone.
“We have made tremendous progress in our relationship with China,” Trump said as the two delegations met around tables flanked by large U.S. and Chinese flags. “I think truly progress has been made. We will be making additional progress. The relationship developed by President Xi and myself I think is outstanding.”
“And I believe lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away,” he added.
The highly anticipated U.S.-China summit has been upstaged, however, by U.S. missile strikes overnight against a Syrian air base from which Trump said a deadly chemical weapon attack had been launched. It was the first direct U.S. assault on the Russian-backed government of Bashar al-Assad in six years of civil war.
The swift action in Syria could be interpreted as a signal especially to defiant nuclear-armed North Korea—and by extension, its ally China—as well as other countries like Iran and Russia of Trump’s willingness to use military force if deemed necessary.
U.S. security concerns with China also focus on Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the strategic South China Sea.
A senior administration official said Trump informed Xi about the strikes as their dinner concluded on Thursday night. Trump then made a televised statement on the operation he said he ordered in retaliation for the poison gas attack, which killed scores of people, including children, in a rebel-held area on Tuesday.
In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry urged all parties in Syria to find a political settlement.
Trump and Xi, politicians with distinctly different styles and experience levels, appeared cordial and businesslike in their initial interactions, with no outward sign of tensions.
The protocol-conscious Chinese earlier had privately expressed concerns that the unpredictable Trump might publicly embarrass the veteran Communist Party chief.