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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Trump hails China ties after a feast of flattery

US president's antagonism replaced by optimism for improved relations following lavish reception in Beijing

US president Donald Trump shakes hand with Chinese president Xi Jinping at the end of a press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017. Fred Dufour / AFP
US president Donald Trump shakes hand with Chinese president Xi Jinping at the end of a press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017. Fred Dufour / AFP

Donald Trump showered praise on Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing on Thursday as he glossed over his previous condemnation of China’s aggressive trade policies and instead presented a united front with the man he needs to help rein in North Korea.

The day was marked by mutual flattery as Mr Trump’s conciliatory words were followed by a state dinner that included a video montage of moments from his visit.

It offers an insight into Mr Trump’s style of diplomacy – using personal chemistry to strike deals - and a glimpse of how foreign leaders play to his ego.

So although the American president criticised a “very one-sided” trade relationship between the US and China, provoking ripples of nervous laughter among his audience of business leaders and officials, he added that the problem lay with previous policy makers in Washington.

“I don't blame China," he said during remarks in the Great Hall of the People.

“After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit.”

It marked a notable shift in tone from candidate Trump who railed against China, accusing Beijing of destroying American jobs by manipulating its currency to drive down the price of its exports in global markets. He even accused China of “raping our country” at one point.

Instead, he opted to suggest a budding bromance with Mr Xi, who consolidated his position during last month’s Communist Party congress to emerge as the most powerful Chinese leader in a generation.

He made his comments after two hours of trade talks in Beijing during his five-nation swing through Asia. He has already visited South Korea and Japan, and will next travel to Vietnam and the Philippines.

Some observers pointed out that Mr Trump delivered his words slowly, without his usual folksy ad libs and energy.

A welcome dinner on Wednesday had been scheduled to last just 20 minutes because of the punishing schedule, although Mr Trump later said it lasted more than two hours and he “enjoyed every minute of it”.

But it will raise questions about whether a 70-year-old president - who was famous for arranging his election campaign so he could return to his own bed most nights - has the stamina for gruelling foreign trips.

And the visit comes at a crucial moment in the Far East. North Korea is intent on developing inter-continental ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the US mainland.

Again, having used a fiery address in South Korea to demand that China do more to isolate Kim Jong-un’s oppressive regime, he used more conciliatory language once in Beijing.

He thanked Mr Xi for his efforts and said he was encouraged by their conversations.

“China can fix this problem easily. And quickly. And I am calling on China and your great president to hopefully work on it very hard,” he said. “If he works on it hard it will happen.”

Mr Trump also used Twitter to thank his hosts, despite the fact China’s “great firewall” bans the platform for almost all citizens except the wealthy or those with access to a virtual private network.

“In the coming months and years ahead I look forward to building an even STRONGER relationship between the United States and China,” he wrote.

For his part, Mr Xi was less fulsome in his praise but reiterated his famous formula for a “win-win” relationship.

“The China-US relationship now stands at a new starting point,” he said. “China is ready to work with the United States to enhance co-operation and properly manage differences in a spirit of mutual respect and mutual benefit.”

Instead, the flattery was laid on in the form of ceremonial pomp. When Mr Trump arrived at the Great Hall of the People, he was met by a display of horn players, a military band and an eight-cannon salute.

“I already had people calling from all parts of the world,” Mr Trump said later. “They were watching. Nothing you can see is so beautiful.”

The state dinner that followed included footage from his visit and video of his granddaughter, Arabella, singing a traditional Chinese song in Mandarin.

The displays of pageantry were all part of what the Chinese have described as a “state visit plus”.

Lindsey Ford, of the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington, said Beijing understood the importance of massaging the president’s ego.

“They are not ignorant that this is a president who is particularly responsive to flattery,” she said.

Beyond mutual appreciation, the day also yielded results in the form of trade agreements. The two sides announced they had signed deals worth more than $250 billion (Dh918bn) for products ranging from US-made jet engines to beef.

It was left to Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, to inject a dose of realism.

“I think the best way to characterise it is that while we appreciate the long hours and the effort that our Chinese counterparts have put into those trade discussions, quite frankly in the grand scheme of a $3- to 500 billion trade deficit, the things that have been achieved are pretty small,” he told reporters.

Mr Trump leaves for Danang, Vietnam, on Friday for the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation conference.

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