PALM BEACH, Fla. — The United States and China wrapped up a two-day presidential summit here by announcing a 100-day plan to improve strained trade ties and boost cooperation between the rival nations.
But they appeared to reach no clear path forward on North Korea, and the Trump administration’s unexpected military strike in Syria — launched on the summit’s first day — highlighted an area where President Trump and counterpart Xi Jinping differ sharply.
Trump aides who participated in the talks described a productive first meeting between the leaders, saying they exhibited “positive” chemistry. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the two sides agreed to speed up trade talks to help close a lopsided imbalance in China’s favor, a common campaign-trail complaint of Trump’s.
“This may be ambitious, but it’s a big sea change in the pace of discussions,” Ross said. “It’s important symbolism of the growing rapport between the two countries.”
Trump advisers said the goal, at least from the U.S. side, was to increase American exports to China. But they offered no details about how they planned to achieve that.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said there was “acknowledgment” from the Chinese side “that we do need to get to a more balanced trade environment.”
But the surprise U.S. military response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians threw a wild card into the summit. U.S. warships fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a military airfield in Syria during Trump’s Thursday night dinner with Xi at Mar-a-Lago.
Trump told Xi about the attack “and explained the rationale behind it,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.
Tillerson insisted that Xi was not rattled by Trump’s decision: “President Xi expressed an appreciation for the president letting him know and providing the rationale and said, as it was told to me, he understood that such a response is necessary when people are killing children.”
China has long objected to the idea of unilateral U.S. military action in Syria. Beijing has said it prefers a multilateral approach, although over the course of six brutal years of war it has repeatedly used its veto power to vote with Russia against U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria, including a December 2016 plan for a seven-day cease-fire in Aleppo and, more recently, a call for sanctions over the use of chemical weapons.
At a daily news briefing Friday, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, reiterated China’s support for a “political settlement” and said it was urgent to prevent any further deterioration of the situation in Syria.
“China has issued its own statements. . . . I have read them on the wire service,” Tillerson told reporters Friday afternoon.
Xi does not like surprises, and the fact that he was photographed shaking Trump’s hand and smiling at his declaration of “friendship” while the United States made a surprise military move was not going to be popular in China.
Top Chinese leaders exist in a world where public appearances are tightly choreographed, the news media are controlled and protocol is paramount.
On Thursday night, conservative U.S. news media painted the Syria hit as a bold but calculated warning to China. “He’s sending a message to the Chinese,” retired Army Gen. Jack Keane told Sean Hannity on Fox News. “He’s telling the Chinese that, ‘Listen, the North Koreans are trying to weaponize intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the rhetoric is they will use them against my country and my people. Don’t push me into a corner where I have to use a military option to deal with them. That would be horrific. That would mean war on the Korean Peninsula.’ ”
The Global Times, a Communist Party-controlled newspaper known for its nationalist tone, viewed the missile strike as a projection of strength. In an editorial, the paper said Trump launched the strike “to establish his authority as the U.S. president.”
“He wants to prove that he dares to do whatever Obama didn’t dare to do,” the newspaper said. “He also wants to prove to the world that he’s not a president-businessman and he will use U.S. military force without any hesitation when he thinks it is necessary.”
On North Korea, Tillerson said the Chinese agreed that the mounting threat of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program had “reached a very serious stage,” but he said there was no discussion of any “package deal” in which Beijing would increase pressure on Pyongyang in exchange for the United States’ curbing military drills with South Korea.
The two sides had “a real commitment to work together to see if this can be resolved in a peaceful way,” Tillerson said. But he warned that Pyongyang must halt its provocative nuclear and ballistic-missile testing before diplomatic talks can begin.
“In order for that to happen, North Korea has to change its posture,” Tillerson said.
Rauhala reported from Beijing. Luna Lin and Jin Xin in Beijing contributed to this report.