BEIJING — President Donald Trump set aside his blistering rhetoric in favor of friendly overtures to China on Thursday, trying to flatter his hosts into establishing a more balanced trade relationship and doing more to blunt North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Winding down his two days in Beijing, Trump suggested that if the U.S. and China jointly took on the world’s problems, “I believe we can solve almost all of them, and probably all of them.”
In the name of furthering that relationship, Trump largely shelved his campaign complaints about China, at least in public. He focused on exhorting Beijing to help with North Korea, an effort expected again to take center stage at an international summit in Vietnam on Friday.
The Chinese rolled out a lavish welcome for the American president. Trump returned the kindness, heaping praise on China’s Xi Jinping and predicting the two powers would work around entrenched differences.
On trade, Trump criticized the “very one-sided and unfair” relationship between the U.S. and China. But unlike his approach during the campaign, when he castigated China for what he contended were inappropriate trade practices, Trump said Thursday that he didn’t blame the Chinese for having taken advantage of the U.S. in the past.
Trump said China “must immediately address the unfair trade practices” that drive a “shockingly” large trade deficit, along with barriers to market access, forced technology transfers and intellectual property theft.
“But I don’t blame China,” he said. “After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?”
To applause, Trump said: “I give China great credit.”
Reacting from afar, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said Trump’s comments “make the United States look weak and as if we are bowing to China’s whim. ... Instead of giving China credit for stealing American jobs, the president should be holding China accountable.” Menendez, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is on trial for bribery.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered a blunt assessment of China’s trade surplus with the United States, which in October widened by 12.2 percent from a year earlier to $26.6 billion. The total surplus with the United States for the first 10 months of the year was $223 billion.
“I think the best way to characterize it is that while we appreciate the long hours and the effort that our Chinese counterparts have put into those trade discussions, quite frankly in the grand scheme of a $300- to $500-billion trade deficit, the things that have been achieved are pretty small,” Tillerson told reporters in Beijing.
Tillerson also acknowledged there were differences in “tactics and the timing and how far to go with pressure” on North Korea. But he insisted that the two countries shared common objectives.
“There is no disagreement on North Korea,” he said.
The comments by Trump and his top diplomat came after lengthy meetings with Xi. The day included announcements that the U.S. and China had signed agreements valued at more than $250 billion for products including U.S.-made jet engines, auto parts, liquefied natural gas and beef.
Such contract signings, a fixture of foreign leaders’ visits to Beijing, are intended to defuse complaints about China’s trade policies.
Xi promised a more open business environment for foreign companies in China and said his country was committed to further opening its economy to outside investment.
“China will not close its doors” and will open them “even wider,” he said, pledging that foreign companies in China, including American ones, would find the market “more open, more transparent and more orderly.”
It is unclear how far China will go to fulfill its pledges. Previous U.S. administrations have hailed market-opening promises only to be left disappointed.
Before arriving in China, Trump had delivered a stern message to Beijing, using an address in South Korea to call on China, North Korea’s biggest trade partner, to do more to confront and isolate the North.
Trump on Thursday appeared far more conciliatory, thanking China for its efforts and saying he’d been encouraged by his conversations.
“China can fix this problem easily. And quickly. And I am calling on China and your great president to hopefully work on it very hard,” Trump said. “If he works on it hard it will happen.”
Trump also was feted at a state dinner that featured a video montage of the president’s visit, as well as footage of his granddaughter, Arabella, the daughter of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, singing a traditional Chinese song in Mandarin.
On Friday, Trump was scheduled to stop in Da Nang, Vietnam, for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference — the first of multiple summits he’ll attend on his first trip to Asia as president.
He may meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the conference. Tillerson said Thursday the two sides were still discussing whether they had “sufficient substance” to talk about in such a meeting.
Associated Press writers Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Darlene Superville and Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.