For the second time, President Donald Trump will welcome a world leader to the Trump-owned Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.
But unlike when Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in February, there will be no golf during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 24-hour visit Thursday and Friday, a senior administration official said. It’s the perception, analysts suggest.
“Xi is afraid of his own shadow at home,” said Daniel Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies and a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Golf in particular is a forbidden sign of corruption in China these days.”
“I think it’s safe to say there’s not going to be any golf,” confirmed the senior administration official, who knows the situation but wasn’t authorized to speak publicly as a matter of practice.
Unlike Abe, Xi also turned down Trump’s invitation to stay at Mar-a-Lago. Instead, he’ll stay at a nearby hotel, the Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa, according to local media reports.
Both of them are nationalists, both of them are egoistic, very ambitious leaders.
Cheng Li, Brookings Institution
Chinese experts say it’s possible that Xi was concerned about security at Mar-a-Lago but that the optics of being a guest of the U.S. president might also be a factor. Trump picked up Abe’s tab at Mar-a-Lago to avoid ethics questions.
White house officials said they do not know why Xi is staying elsewhere. Local police did not comment.
“If President Xi is not staying at Mar-a-Lago, that removes one specific financial conflict, but does not fix the more fundamental concern: that President Trump should have fully divested from his business, released his tax returns, and attempted to prevent even the appearance of a conflict, as all other modern Presidents have done,” said John Wonderlich, executive editor of the Sunlight Foundation, which pushes for government openness.
The world’s two most powerful leaders are meeting each other for the first time after speaking earlier this year on the phone. Administration officials say there is no set agenda for the meetings but there are many areas the two are likely to talk about, including the nuclear threat from North Korea, trade, and China’s push to claim territory in the South China Sea.
Trump anticipates tension. “The meeting…with China will be very a difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits... and job losses,” Trump tweeted. “American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives.”
North Korea launched a ballistic missile Wednesday and experts said it could engage in an additional tests while Trump and Xi meet. It also launched a missile test during Trump and Abe’s summit.
“Obviously President Xi… must show that he can manage the most important bilateral relationship – frankly, not just manage it, but do his best to control it,” said Christopher K. Johnson, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “I suspect that Xi is a very confident fellow, and probably thinks he’s going to come in and sort of get one over on President Trump. I suspect President Trump thinks he’s going to get one over on President Xi. So it’ll be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out.”
Cheng Li, director and senior fellow of the John L. Thornton China Center at the liberal Brookings Institution, said the two just may get along because they have several things in common.
“Both of them are nationalists, both of them are egoistic, very ambitious leaders,” he said. “One wants to fulfill China’s dream, the other want to make America great again.”
Some long-time Asia experts warn that little of substance is likely to come out of the discussions, partly because the Trump administration hasn’t yet developed the policy expertise to make big decisions.
“This administration is unprecedentedly unstaffed to be going into a summit with our major strategic rival in the world,” said Stapleton Roy, a former U.S. ambassador to China, Indonesia and Singapore and now a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington. “Who in the administration at the present time has a grasp of all these things? You don’t want fundamental policies being established at this point in the administration.”
Golf in particular is a forbidden sign of corruption in China these days.
Daniel Blumenthal, American Enterprise Institute
Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said that Xi sought the summit with Trump in part because of concerns at home.
This fall, the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 19th Party Congress in Beijing, which will determine whether Xi consolidates his power or returns as general secretary in a weakened position. China’s economy is slowing, and Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign triggered fears of a further slowdown.
“Xi wants a stable relationship with the United States coming up to the 19th party congress,” said Lardy, speaking Wednesday at a panel discussion hosted by the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think tank. “He wants a stable domestic economy . . . He certainly does not want a trade war.”
Yet China’s hopes for a calmer relationship could be foiled by the uncertainties of dealing face-to-face with Trump.
“Xi is willing to take a substantial risk in coming to this summit and dealing with an unpredictable, unscriptable president,” Lardy said. “This could go very badly for him, and the fact that he is willing to take that risk suggests some change in their approach.”
Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, also invited Xi to a meeting outside the White House. The two met at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, in 2013.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said earlier this week that it was Xi’s idea to meet in Florida, but the senior administration official said the next day that Trump actually invited the Chinese president.
“This is an opportunity for President Trump to develop a relationship in person with President Xi,” Spicer said. “There are big issues of national and economic security that need to get addressed, and I think there’s going to be a lot on the table when it comes to that over the two days that they will talk.”
Stuart Leavenworth in Washington and Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald in Miami contributed to this report.