By Steve Holland and Koh Gui Qing
PALM BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) - President Donald Trump pressed Chinese President Xi Jinping to do more to curb North Korea’s nuclear program and help reduce the gaping U.S. trade deficit with Beijing in talks on Friday, even as he toned down the strident anti-China rhetoric of his election campaign.
Trump spoke publicly of progress on a range of issues in his first U.S.-China summit – as did several of his top aides – but they provided few concrete specifics other than China's agreement to work together to narrow disagreements and find common ground for cooperation.
As the two leaders wrapped up a Florida summit overshadowed by U.S. missile strikes in Syria overnight, Xi joined Trump in stressing the positive mood of the meetings and at the same time papering over deep differences that have caused friction between the world’s two biggest economies.
Trump’s aides insisted he had made good on his pledge to raise concerns about China’s trade practices and said there was some headway, Xi agreeing to a 100-day plan for trade talks aimed at boosting U.S. exports and reducing China’s trade surplus with the United States.
Speaking after the two-day summit at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also said that Xi had agreed to increased cooperation in reining in North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs – though he did not offer any new formula for cracking Pyongyang’s defiant attitude.
Trump promised during the campaign to stop what he called the theft of American jobs by China. Many blue-collar workers helped propel him to his unexpected election victory on Nov. 8 and Trump is under pressure to deliver for them.
The Republican president tweeted last week that the United States could no longer tolerate massive trade deficits and job losses and that his meeting with Xi "will be a very difficult one."
On Friday, the unpredictable Trump not only set a different tone but also avoided any public lapses in protocol that Chinese officials had feared could embarrass their leader.
"We have made tremendous progress in our relationship with China," Trump told reporters as the two delegations met around tables flanked by large U.S. and Chinese flags. "We will be making additional progress. The relationship developed by President Xi and myself I think is outstanding.”
“And I believe lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away," he added, without providing details.
'AGREE WITH YOU 100 PERCENT'
Xi also spoke in mostly positive terms.
“We have engaged in deeper understanding, and have built a trust," he said. “I believe we will keep developing in a stable way to form friendly relations ... For the peace and stability of the world, we will also fulfill our historical responsibility.”
“Well, I agree with you 100 percent," Trump replied.
But in a sign that rough spots remained, Tillerson afterwards described the discussions as “very frank and candid.”
After the meeting, Trump took Xi on a walk around the manicured grounds of his lavish Spanish-style complex. Trump could be seen chatting and gesturing to Xi, who did the same.
Tillerson said Trump had accepted Xi’s invitation to visit China and that they also agreed to upgrade a U.S.-China dialogue by putting the two presidents at the head of the forum.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the Chinese had expressed an interest in reducing China’s trade surplus as a way of controlling their own inflation. “That’s the first time I’ve heard them say that in a bilateral context,” he said.
The highly anticipated U.S.-China summit was upstaged by U.S. missile strikes overnight against a Syrian air base from which Trump said a deadly chemical weapon attack had been launched. It was the first direct U.S. assault on the Russian-backed government of Bashar al-Assad in six years of civil war.
The swift action in Syria could be interpreted as a signal especially to defiant nuclear-armed North Korea – and by extension, its ally China – as well as other countries like Iran and Russia of Trump’s willingness to use military force. North Korea is developing missiles capable of hitting the United States.
Tillerson said Xi agreed with Trump that North Korea's nuclear advances had reached a “very serious stage.”
He said Trump also raised U.S.concerns about China's activities in the South China Sea. Beijing is building and fortifying islands in pursuit of expansive territorial claims in the strategic waterway.
(This story corrects spelling of Jinping in first paragraph, removes reference to "this year" in 16th paragraph)
(Writing by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller)