- By George Bennett Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
President Donald Trump normally exudes bravado, but he’s been uncharacteristically cautious in setting expectations for his upcoming summit at Mar-a-Lago with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump, who regularly slammed China on trade and other issues during the 2016 presidential campaign, will meet with Xi for the first time on Thursday and Friday.
“The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses. American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives,” Trump told his Twitter followers on Thursday.
“We’re going to get down to some very serious business” at the Palm Beach summit, Trump said Friday as he signed a pair of executive orders aimed at cracking down on trade infractions by China and others.
State-run Chinese media, meanwhile, has been downplaying Trump’s past criticism of China and putting a hopeful spin on the summit.
“The upcoming face-to-face meeting between the two presidents is a good opportunity to deepen their personal understanding of each other and to strengthen mutual trust,” said a Friday commentary on the Chinese site XinhuaNet. “A strong personal relationship between heads of state often plays a critical and sometimes even indispensable role in helping promote the relations between their countries.”
A recent commentary in People’s Daily, an official organ of the Chinese Communist Party, said U.S.-China relations “seem to have found a good rhythm” after “earlier inappropriate words and actions from the U.S. new administration.”
Along with his criticism of Mexican “rapists” and shots at “Crooked” Hillary Clinton, some of Trump’s harshest rhetoric as a candidate was directed at China.
“We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world,” Trump said of China’s trade policies during a May 1 campaign rally in Indiana.
He frequently accused China of artificially lowering the value of its currency to promote its exports and hurt U.S. jobs and businesses. He threatened to slap a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports. He accused China of not doing enough to rein in North Korean nuclear proliferation and of “overreach” in the South China Sea, where the Chinese are creating islands in disputed waters for apparent military use.
After winning the election in November, Trump appointed China critic Peter Navarro — author of books called “Death By China” and “The Coming China Wars” — to be director of the White House National Trade Council.
Trump also riled the Chinese in December by taking a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Taiwan split from mainland communist China in 1949 and the U.S. severed formal relations with the island in 1979; the call was seen as casting doubt on America’s longstanding “One China” policy of recognizing only mainland China.
When some suggested Trump should have cleared the Taiwanese conversation with China, Trump tweeted: “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!”
Trump has walked back some of his tough talk since taking office. Despite his defiant Twitter stance on the Taiwan call, Trump reaffirmed U.S. support for the One China policy during a Feb. 9 phone call with Xi that the White House described as “extremely cordial.”
And Trump did not act on his campaign pledge to label China a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office. Asked about that Friday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, “I’m sure there will be a lot of discussions about our economic relationship” at the Mar-a-Lago summit.
One of the few aspects of China that Trump hasn’t criticized is its human rights record. The nonprofit Human Rights Watch calls China “a one-party authoritarian state that systemically curbs fundamental rights.”
As he sought the Republican nomination in early 2016, Trump drew fire for a 1990 Playboy magazine interview in which he noted the “strength” with which the Chinese government cracked down on protesters a year earlier in Tiananmen Square.
“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak … as being spit on by the rest of the world,” Trump said in 1990.
Asked about his Tiananmen Square remarks during a March 2016 GOP debate in Miami, Trump said: “I was not endorsing it. I said that is a strong, powerful government that put it down with strength. And then they kept down the riot. It was a horrible thing. It doesn’t mean at all I was endorsing it.”
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio last week urged Trump to bring up China’s human rights record during the summit with Xi.
“It is imperative that the president raise the plight of political prisoners and human rights activists by name in his discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and press for their immediate and unconditional release,” Rubio said in a statement Thursday after The Palm Beach Post asked for his thoughts on the Trump-Xi meeting.
“As those being persecuted have said, this kind of pressure often results in improved conditions and shorter sentences, not to mention the incalculable hope that comes from knowing they have not been forgotten by the United States of America,” Rubio said.