Trump, who made China’s growing economic might a bogeymen during his presidential campaign, appeared set to deliver a face-to-face scoulding of President Xi Jinping following an announcement of new business deals between US and Chinese companies. Standing just a few feet away from the Chinese president, Trump declared that the two nations “must immediately address the unfair trade practices” that drive the trade deficit, along with barriers to market access, forced technology transfers and intellectual property theft.
“But I don’t blame China,” Trump said to audible gasps from some of the business leaders and journalists from both countries in The Great Hall of the People. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?” he asked, to cheers from some of the Chinese contingent. “I give China great credit.”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said later that Trump’s comment had been “a little bit tongue-in-cheek” but that it nonetheless carried “a lot of truth.”
Either way, it was a far cry from Trump’s inflammatory campaign rhetoric on China. Night after night at rallies across the country, he portrayed himself as a hard-nosed negotiator who would hold other countries accountable for disadvantaging US workers. “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country and that’s what they’re doing,” he said in Indiana in May 2016. “It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.”
While Trump made clear that he wanted a more equitable trade relationship, he made no mention of previous campaign threats to label China a currency manipulator, impose double-digit tariffs or authorise draconian trade measures.
Trump took a similarly softer tack on rising tensions with North Korea, taking a gentler tone, thanking Xi for his efforts and saying he’d been encouraged by his 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.
While China is increasingly disenchanted with North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, it remains wary of using its full economic leverage over its traditional ally. China fears triggering a collapse of the North’s totalitarian regime that could cause an influx of refugees into northeastern China and culminate in a US-allied unified Korea on its border.