Forget the tough talk—Trump is planning a warm welcome for China’s Xi Jinping

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Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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On the campaign trail, US president Donald Trump promised to declare China a currency manipulator on “day one,” feed his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping a McDonald’s hamburger when he hosted him, and punish the country for “stealing ” US jobs.

But the real-life summit between Xi and Trump that starts Thursday is going to be a sedate, traditional, diplomatic affair, according to a background briefing by White House officials on Tuesday afternoon.

The 24 hours the two leaders will spend together at the US president’s private club in Florida will be a “first step towards building constructive and results-orientated relations,” one official said. There is no set agenda for discussion, and the “topics have not been scripted out in advance,” he said. It’s a far cry from the president’s promise of a “difficult” conversation just days ago on Twitter.

The officials did highlight two areas Trump is likely to bring up: China’s promises to open up its economy and give more importance to market forces, rather than strict government controls, and the further containment of North Korea by encouraging China to follow UN sanctions against the dictatorship with nuclear capabilities.

But the focus overall appears to be building relations with Xi after Trump used the country he helms as a punching-bag for months.”Together the US and China represent 40% of the global economy and there is no greater or more consequential economic relationship,” one White House official said.

Rather than discussing tariffs outright, after Trump pledged to slap a 35% import tax on goods from China, the talks in Florida will “set a framework” to discuss “issues of trade and investment” in the future, the official said.

Both men’s wives will attend and “have some time to get to know each other,” a second official said, and the couples will have a dinner on Thursday night (presumably not McDonalds), followed by a “working luncheon” on Friday. However, they won’t play any golf (Xi’s Communist Party once forbade members from playing golf, considering it a wasteful sport of the idle rich).

It’s the latest example of “talk loudly, carry a tiny stick” diplomacy in the Trump administration, which also pledged to make Mexico pay for a wall that it is now asking Congress to fund. Rather than taking a hard line, the Trump administration’s report on the barriers to trade with China issued last week is nearly identical to the previous administration’s.