BEIJING -- China's President Xi Jinping, seeking to portray coming talks on trade and North Korea as great-power politics between equals, gave U.S. counterpart Donald Trump a royal welcome here Wednesday.
The U.S. president's arrival marked his third stop on a tour of Asian state visits, following Japan and South Korea, and his first official visit to China. Xi and Trump are set for a summit meeting Thursday.
The Chinese president, freshly appointed to a second term, met Trump at the capital's Forbidden City, the Chinese imperial palace in the Ming and Qing Dynasty. He personally showed the American leader around the palace grounds, a step up from then-president Barack Obama's China visit in 2009. Obama also took a walk in the palace during his stay, but Hu Jintao, Xi's predecessor, was nowhere to be seen. China's foreign ministry has described Trump's visit as of a higher status than typical state visits.
The heads of state and their wives attended a tea ceremony and a traditional Chinese opera performance together, followed by supper -- the first time since the 1949 founding of the People's Republic of China a foreign leader was hosted for dinner in the Forbidden City, U.S. media claimed. The warm welcome appeared aimed at building personal, family-level ties as well as projecting an image of stable Sino-American relations.
Apart on Pyongyang
Trump blasted Pyongyang and its ongoing nuclear and missile development, which he and Xi will discuss Thursday, in an address to South Korea's National Assembly earlier this week, saying the world "cannot tolerate the menace of a rogue regime." He nodded to American military buildup in the area, including the deployment of three aircraft carriers to waters near the North.
"All responsible nations must join forces to isolate the brutal regime of North Korea," he went on, calling for further pressure and urging relevant countries to downgrade diplomacy, even suggesting trade with Pyongyang to be cut off entirely.
But China refuses to cut ties with the neighbor. United Nations Security Council resolutions on sanctions toward North Korea "also call on all relevant parties to create enabling conditions for peacefully resolving the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue through political and diplomatic means," foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters Wednesday.
China also hesitates to take drastic steps like cutting off oil exports, and opposes military action. Chaos in North Korea could send refugees flooding over the border into China. What's more, Beijing has judged it needs a buffer zone against South Korea and its U.S. military presence. It remains unbent on prioritizing a dialogue-based solution.
Room to negotiate
Some in China are growing impatient with Pyongyang's repeated provocations, however. Some experts suggest China prepare for the possibility of U.S. military action by discussing the matter with Washington in advance. Such issues may be discussed at closed-door talks with only interpreters in tow during the Trump cortege's three-day stay.
How Beijing responds to Washington's urgings to slim their trade imbalance will also be a focus of talks.
Nineteen commercial deals worth about $9 billion in sectors including life sciences and aviation were signed at meetings in Beijing Wednesday, with attendees including China's vice-premier Wang Yang and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, according to Hong Kong media. The $9 billion tally pales next to China's trade surplus with the U.S. -- about $260 billion per year, say Beijing's statistics -- but it serves as a token of cooperation Trump can take home as a souvenir.