President Donald Trump, center left, first lady Melania Trump, left,  Chinese President Xi Jinping, center right, and his wife Peng Liyuan, right, stand together as they tour the Forbidden City, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, in Beijing, China. Trump is on a five country trip through Asia traveling to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Trump in China: What's at stake?
00:22 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Trump was welcomed with open arms in Beijing

He hasn't followed through on his tough talk

Beijing CNN  — 

On the first anniversary of his election, President Donald Trump touched down in the country he had most maligned during the 2016 campaign.

And he was welcomed with open arms: Trump’s reception in the Chinese capital on Wednesday was complete with Chinese schoolchildren on the tarmac waving US and Chinese flags and others later uttering “I love you” to the US President.

His arrival was filled with an unmistakable sense of irony. But it also underscored the geopolitical realities Trump has had to confront as President – and the relief here that he has yet to enact many of the toughest measures he pledged at nearly every campaign trail rally.

“We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world,” he said at a May 2016 rally.

But Trump hasn’t imposed double-digit tariffs on Chinese imports. He seems to have entirely abandoned his plans to label China a currency manipulator. And he hasn’t retaliated against Beijing’s abusive trade practices with draconian measures of his own, as his campaign once foreboded.

Instead, Trump’s administration is leaning much more heavily on dialogue with Chinese officials – notably direct talks with his counterpart, President Xi Jinping – than other more dramatic powers afforded to him by the presidency.

That relationship pressed forward as Trump arrived Wednesday for a reception Chinese officials are calling the beginning of a “state visit, plus” that included an elaborate series of theatrical performances – timed to coincide with the sunset – in the heart of Beijing’s historic Forbidden City.

Trump was all smiles and laughter, exchanging pleasantries with Xi and laughing at bits of the performance. And during tea time, Trump and Xi bonded over video clips of Trump’s granddaughter singing and reciting ancient poems in Chinese.

“We’re having a great time,” Trump told reporters.

Foundation laid

In the 10 months of his presidency, the Trump administration has laid the foundation for him to take the kinds of strong retaliatory measures that would leave Chinese officials fuming. But so far, he hasn’t pulled the trigger.

Pulling out his presidential pen, Trump has launched trade investigations into steel and aluminum imports and alleged Chinese theft of US intellectual property. But while those actions signal the administration’s seriousness about countering Chinese trade abuses, the follow-up, so far, has been lacking – even when those reviews have been completed, awaiting presidential action to impose tariffs or other measures to protect US industries.

Trump has offered no signs that his stance on China has changed or that he views the Asian powerhouse as less destructive to US manufacturing or threatening to the US’ continued economic dominance. In fact, he’s continued to rail against the US trade deficit with China and suggested more decisive action could come soon.

But the presidency has a way of bringing uncomfortable realities crashing down on the most powerful person in the world, like the undeniably intertwined fates of the US and Chinese economies. Or the importance of enlisting China’s support in confronting the North Korean nuclear threat.

Few issues have been more at loggerheads over the course of Trump’s presidency than trade and North Korea. And few relationships have been a better example of that conflict than that of the US and China.

While a senior White House official insisted earlier this week that Trump would make no trade-offs on his trade agenda in order to elicit more support from China in pressuring North Korea, Trump himself has signaled a willingness to make concessions on trade in exchange for stepped up pressure on Pyongyang from Beijing.

The effort – which has been peppered with Trump’s public praise for Xi and hours devoted to building a personal relationship with the Chinese leader – has yielded results as China has gone further in sanctioning North Korea and backing the US-led pressure campaign than ever. One key step, China signing on to new UN Security Council sanctions, came only after the White House delayed a move to launch an investigation into alleged Chinese intellectual property theft.

Scaling up pressure on North Korea

But the Trump administration continues to believe China can and must do more to leverage its influence over the North Korean regime, which trades almost exclusively with China. It’s unclear how Trump will react if China resists calls to continue scaling up pressure on North Korea.

As his visit to China approached, Trump and his advisers have made clear that trade is a top item on the agenda – and Trump’s rhetoric on trade often found a target in Beijing as Trump made his way to Tokyo and Seoul.

“It’s been a very unfair trade situation. Our trade deficit (with China) is massive. It’s hundreds of billions of dollars a year … It has to come down,” Trump said Monday in Japan, before signaling that the US “will take very, very strong action” against countries that he believes have taken advantage of the US.

“You’re going to see a very big difference, and it’s going to happen very soon,” Trump added, without offering any more detail.

Aboard Air Force One en route to Beijing, a senior White House official stressed that Trump plans to confront the Chinese on the “severe imbalances in the US-China economic relationship” and ways to remedy the “grossly un-level playing field” for US companies in China.

And while his visit to China will be a crucial opportunity for Trump to press Chinese officials to increase market access for US companies in China, end unfair subsidies to Chinese companies dumping goods in the US and curtail the theft of US intellectual property, his efforts could be undercut by the pressure he must mount on Xi when it comes to North Korea.

But so far Chinese officials have been wary at the prospect of taking more punitive measures against North Korea.

“China has been doing everything we can on the Korean issue,” said Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the US, who pointed to the UN sanctions that he said are being implemented “with a high cost for China itself.”

But, he stressed, “this issue cannot be solved all by China’s self.”