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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Trump in China for talks on North Korea's 'cruel dictatorship'

The US president is looking to prod Chinese premier Xi Jinping into doing more to squeeze North Korea economically and to address China's massive trade surplus with the United States

US president Donald Trump, left, and Chinese president Xi Jinping, right, arrive for an opera performance at the Forbidden City in Beijing on November 8, 2017. Andrew Harnik / AP
US president Donald Trump, left, and Chinese president Xi Jinping, right, arrive for an opera performance at the Forbidden City in Beijing on November 8, 2017. Andrew Harnik / AP

With a guided tour followed by opera and dinner in the Forbidden City - the first time such an honour had ever been accorded to an American president - there was no doubting that the Chinese had pulled out all the stops for the official visit of Donald Trump and the First Lady, Melania. In fact, they dubbed it a "state visit plus."

And there was also no doubting that Beijing was the most crucial stop on President Trump's 12-day Asian tour as he too must pull out all the stops in his bid to prod Chinese premier Xi Jinping into joining him in building a global front against North Korea and its nuclear threats, as well as redressing the trade imbalance between China and the United States. .

So far so good. President Trump declared his welcome in Beijing was "unforgettable" — on Twitter, naturally.

The ceremony accompanying the Trumps' arrival on Wednesday afternoon was elaborate even by China's lavish standards. Mr and Mrs Trump were met by Chinese and American dignitaries, soldiers, a band playing martial music and children waving miniature Chinese and American flags. After the musical show inside the Forbidden City, the young performers — all opera students — shouted, "Welcome to China! I love you."

At his previous stop in the South Korean capital, Seoul, the US president had used some of his toughest language yet against North Korea in a wide-ranging speech containing specific accusations of chilling human rights abuses. He called on countries around the world to isolate Pyongyang by denying it "any form of support, supply or acceptance."

Speaking in the National Assembly but addressing North Korea, Mr Trump said, "Do not underestimate us and do not try us. The weapons that you are acquiring are not making you safer, they are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face."

He painted a dystopian picture of the reclusive North, saying people were suffering in "gulags" and some bribed government officials to work as "slaves" overseas rather than live under the government at home, though he offered no evidence to support those accusations.

He had words of assurance for South Korea. , "We will not allow American cities to be threatened with destruction … And we will not let the worst atrocities in history be repeated here, on this ground we fought and died to secure." As he spoke, three US aircraft carrier groups sailed to the Western Pacific for exercises — a rare show of such American naval force in the region.

The speech came after an unannounced visit to the heavily fortified border - known as the demilitarised zone (DMZ) - separating North and South Korea was aborted when dense fog prevented the presidential helicopter from landing, officials said.

The return to harsh, uncompromising language came a day after Mr Trump appeared to tone down the belligerence, even to the extent of offering a diplomatic opening to Pyongyang to "make a deal."

And he also promised a "path to a much better future" if North Korea stopped developing ballistic missiles and agreed to "complete, verifiable and total denuclearisation" — something Pyongyang has vowed never to do.

But he also had a veiled warning for China: "To those nations that choose to ignore this threat or, worse still, to enable it, the weight of this crisis is on your conscience," he said.

State visit-plus

But all that was before Air Force One took off for Beijing. Once landed, Mr Trump and Mr Xi resumed the "bromance" that began in April at Mr Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, making small talk as they toured the Forbidden City — which was closed to tourists — with their wives before taking in a Chinese opera performance.

While the sprawling palace complex in the political and cultural heart of Beijing is a regular stop for visiting dignitaries, it is rare for a Chinese leader to act as a personal escort, confirmation of the "state visit-plus" treatment that China has laid on.

President Trump has threatened action over China's considerable trade surplus with the United States but he has expressed admiration for President Xi and held off on imposing trade measures.

During his two-day visit, Mr Trump will ask China to do more to rein in North Korea, such as abiding by UN resolutions and cutting financial links with its ally and neighbour. He also plans to discuss with Mr Xi the long-contentious trade imbalance, said US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross said at a ceremony with American business leaders where $9 billion worth of deals were signed.

In all the White House expects to announce deals in China this week worth more than $250 billion.

The formal talks between the two presidents are scheduled for Thursday. While Mr Trump will try to convince President Xi to squeeze North Korea further with steps such as limits on oil exports and financial transactions, it is not clear if the Chinese leader — who has just consolidated his power at a Communist Party congress — will agree.

China has repeatedly said its influence over Pyongyang is exaggerated by the West and that it is already doing all it can to enforce sanctions. The Chinese foreign ministry said that China fully and strictly implements UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea, but will investigate if there have been any contraventions.

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Read more:

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