PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — President Donald Trump was meeting again with his Chinese counterpart Friday, with U.S. missile strikes on Syria adding weight to his threat to act unilaterally against the nuclear weapons program of China’s ally, North Korea.
The U.S. attack on Syrian government installations largely overshadowed what was expected to be a high-profile summit at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles as well the U.S.-China trade balance.
Their introductory dinner wrapped up shortly before the U.S. announced the missile barrage on an air base in Syria on Thursday in retaliation against Syrian President Bashar Assad for a chemical weapons attack against civilians caught up in his country’s long civil war.
China has sided with Russia at the United Nations in opposing condemnation of Assad’s government but has not become directly involved in the conflict.
On Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that China opposed the use of chemical weapons by any party under any circumstances but didn’t comment on the U.S. attack.
The timing of the attacks sends a message to the Chinese — Trump telling the Financial Times days before Xi’s arrival that he is prepared to go it alone on North Korea if China doesn’t work with the U.S. to crack down on North Korea’s nuclear program.
Military options against North Korea are much riskier than those against Syria. It has already tested nuclear weapons and South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is in range of North Korean artillery.
Taking action against North Korea has been a sticking point in U.S. talks with the Chinese. China is North Korea’s most important ally and trading partner, and a significant source of its weapons, food and energy.
Before Thursday night’s dinner with their wives, Trump said he and Xi already had had a long discussion and had “developed a friendship,” and then joked, “I have gotten nothing, absolutely nothing.”
However, Xi apparently got something out of dinner. Chinese state media reported late Thursday that Trump has accepted Xi’s invitation to visit China this year.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported that Trump will travel to China at an “early date” in 2017, but gave no details.
The White House downplayed expectations for a breakthrough on issues like trade and tariffs, insisting that the 24-hour summit is mostly an introductory meeting for the two leaders. Within Trump’s administration, divisions remain over how to approach China.
Both as a candidate and president, Trump has taken an aggressive posture toward China, labeling Beijing a “tremendous problem” and arguing that lopsided trade deals with China shortchange American businesses and workers. Last week, the president predicted in a tweet that his meeting with Xi would be “very difficult.”
He also last week signed a pair of executive orders focused on reducing the U.S. trade deficit, an apparent shot at China, which accounted for the vast bulk — $347 billion — of last year’s $502 billion trade deficit.
Speaking to reporters while traveling to Florida, Trump suggested there was a link between “terrible” trade agreements the U.S. has made with China and Pyongyang’s provocations. He said the two issues “really do mix.”
While Trump would not say what he wants China to do specifically, he said he thinks China will “want to be stepping up” in trying to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
For his part, Xi was expected to seek assurances that Trump will not interfere in the territorial dispute over the South China Sea or question the “One China” policy by reaching out to Taiwan’s leader again, as Trump did during the transition.
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