BEIJING, China — President Donald Trump had nothing but praise for China during his first official visit here — even when it comes to what he has labeled China’s unfair trading practices.
While Trump called for “immediately” addressing Chinese trade abuses, he also said he doesn’t “blame” the Asian powerhouse. The comments, remarkable for any U.S. president amid negotiations with his Chinese counterpart, were especially stark coming from Trump, who vilified China during his campaign for president.
“I don’t blame China,” Trump said during an address to business leaders. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit.”
Instead, Trump blamed past U.S. administrations “for allowing this trade deficit to take place and to grow.”
Asked about the President’s remarks, U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad told reporters that Trump believes China is simply pursuing its own interests.
“That’s the President’s words,” Branstad said. “I think what he’s saying is that China is pursuing its own national interests and you can’t blame any country for doing that. We just have to do a better job of doing that for the United States of America.”
Trump’s comments came during an address to U.S. and Chinese business leaders, amid wide-ranging discussions with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping.
Trump and Xi faced reporters here together for the first time on Thursday, but the two leaders leaders — the first, a vocal critic of the press and the other an enforcer of strict media censorship — did not take questions from reporters.
Xi offered a placatory view of the US-China ties on Thursday, insisting that differences between his country and Trump’s could be resolved — or, if not, be put on the back burner.
“As two distinctive countries our two sides may have different views or differences on some issues. This is natural,” Xi said during press statements at the Great Hall of the People. “They key is to properly handle and manage them.”
Supporting a “constructive approach,” Xi encouraged the two nations to “put aside and diffuse differences while at the same time building common ground.”
“The Pacific is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States,” Xi said, which drew a smile from Trump.
Trump is the first U.S. President to not take questions alongside his Chinese counterpart in his first visit here since President George H.W. Bush.
The two leaders addressed the world amid their second-ever series of top-level discussions. The focus so far has been the trading relationship between the two countries, North Korea’s ongoing development of nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities and a slew of other pressing issues. The two leaders held their first direct talks during Xi’s visit to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s south Florida property, last spring.
The Chinese have sought to “wow” Trump with pageantry and elaborate displays as part of what they have termed a “state visit, plus.”
Trump arrived Thursday for his first full day with an oversized state welcome at the Great Hall of the People, the cavernous government structure on the western edge of Tiananmen Square.
He and the first lady emerged from their limousine to an elaborate show of flattery, with horn players heralding Trump’s arrival for a day of extended talks with his Chinese counterpart.
Trump and Xi surveyed Chinese military bands from a canopied platform and greeted cheering schoolchildren, who waved colored pom-poms as the President strode past.
It was the second major show of welcome for Trump, who arrived in Beijing on Wednesday and was shuttled to the Forbidden City for a rare personal tour by Xi.
The outsized welcome is becoming de rigueur for foreign leaders eager to appeal to Trump’s own sense of importance. But underpinning Xi’s displays are a flex of Chinese power as he positions his country as an economic rival to the United States.
Hoping for a muscle flex himself on trade, Trump oversaw the inking of billions of dollars in business agreements between American and Chinese firms, though details of the deals were not immediately available from the White House or the Commerce Department.
Trump has used similar signing ceremonies during past foreign visits to demonstrate an ability to negotiate agreements that benefit American workers. But many of the accords have been in the works long before Trump entered office.
Speaking ahead of talks with Xi, Trump accused past administrations of allowing China to lead on trade.
“You are representing China, but it is too bad that past administrations allowed it to get so far out of kilter. But we’ll make it fair and it will be tremendous for both of us,” he said.
Every U.S. President since Bill Clinton has convinced his Chinese counterpart to take questions from reporters during his first state visit to China. Clinton in 1998, George W. Bush in 2002 and Barack Obama in 2009.
But American reporters covering U.S. presidential visits to Beijing have had mixed success in questioning leaders here.
In 2014, President Barack Obama appeared to score a diplomatic win by convincing Xi — then in office for two years — to conduce a joint news conference on the sidelines of the APEC summit.
But once inside the Great Hall of the People — the same building where Trump and Xi will appear on Thursday — it became clear that Xi wasn’t interested in touchy questions about his government’s openness.
Asked by a U.S. journalist about Chinese visa restrictions for American reporters, Xi initially appeared reluctant to answer, standing in an awkward silence as Obama turned to hear his answer with a look of bemused anticipation.
Xi turned instead to a softball question from a government-run newspaper. But he made a harsh return to the question of press freedoms during his answer.
“Media outlets need to obey China’s laws and regulations,” Xi said. “When a car breaks down on the road, perhaps we need to get off the car to see where the problem lies. And when a certain issue is raised as a problem, there must be a reason.”