President Donald Trump on Thursday criticized the “very one-sided and unfair” trade relationship between the U.S. and China, but stopped short of castigating Chinese President Xi Jinping by saying he doesn’t blame the country for having taken advantage of the U.S.
Speaking after the announcement of new business deals between US and Chinese companies, Trump said China “must immediately address the unfair trade practices that drive” what he said is “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.”
Trump’s comments came during his second day in China and 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 are a fixture of foreign leader visits to Beijing and are intended to defuse foreign complaints about China’s trade policies.
Many of the contracts signed Thursday appeared to represent purchases that Chinese mobile phone makers, airlines and other customers would have made anyway, but were saved to be announced during Trump’s visit. It was unclear if the pledges extend beyond a U.S.-China trade agreement announced in May that featured LNG and beef exports to China.
The deals are “a way of distracting from the fact that there’s been no progress in China on structural reform, market access or the big issues that the president has tried to make progress on with regard to China,” said Elizabeth Economy, the Asia studies director at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Trump had made narrowing the multibillion-dollar U.S. trade deficit with China a priority for his administration. During the presidential campaign, he accused China of “raping our country” on trade and pledged to minimize the countries’ trade imbalance.
China’s trade surplus with the United States in October widened by 12.2 percent from a year earlier, to $26.6 billion, according to Chinese customs data released Wednesday. The total surplus with the United States for the first 10 months of the year rose to $223 billion.
For his part, Xi promised a more open business environment for foreign companies in China and said his country was committed to further opening its economy to foreign 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.”
The United States and other trading partners have been pressing Beijing to give their companies more access to its state-dominated economy. But it remains unclear how far China will go to fulfill its pledges. Previous U.S. administrations have hailed market-opening promises only to be left disappointed.
Xi also described U.S.-China relations as standing at a “new historic starting point,” and declared: “The Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States.”
Before arriving in China, Trump had delivered a stern message to Beijing, using an address to the National Assembly in South Korea to call on China, North Korea’s biggest trade partner, to do more to confront and isolate the antagonistic nation. That included calling on China to fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at depriving the North’s government of revenue for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs
“You cannot support, you cannot supply, you cannot accept,” he said.
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. There’s no doubt about it.”
It was an optimistic tone that Trump stuck throughout the day. Earlier, he’d said he looked “forward to many years of success and friendship working together to solve not only our problems, but world problems, and problems of great danger and security.”
“I believe we can solve almost all of them, and probably all of them,” he said.
China is increasingly disenchanted with North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, but remains wary of using its full economic leverage over its traditional ally. It fears triggering a collapse of the North’s totalitarian regime that could cause an influx of refugees into northeastern China and culminate in a U.S.-allied unified Korea on its border.
Before the meetings, China rolled out the red carpet for Trump, treating him to an elaborate welcome ceremony on the plaza outside the Great Hall of the People before the leaders turned to their private talks.
Trump looked on approvingly as a Chinese honor guard played the national anthems of both countries, cannons boomed and soldiers marched. He clapped and smiled as children waving U.S. and Chinese flags and flowers screamed and jumped wildly.
The day before, Trump and first lady Melania Trump spent the first hours of their visit on a private tour of the Forbidden City, Beijing’s ancient imperial palace. It’s usually teeming with tourists but was closed to the public for the presidential visit.
Trump said Thursday the welcome “was truly memorable and impressive and something I will never forget.”