China's emboldened leader Xi Jinping offered Donald Trump a display meant to satisfy a leader susceptible to flattery when the US President touched down in Beijing on Wednesday.
But beneath the state pageantry lies another message, one not meant to stoke Trump's ego but instead to issue a stark reminder. Xi, now the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, leads a nation that's poised to challenge the US in new and unpredictable ways.
How Trump -- who is desperate to find success amid sagging approval ratings and an investigation into his campaign's ties to Russia -- responds to Xi's overtures could help dictate the world's most important bilateral relationship for years to come.
"As far as China is concerned, my relationship, as you know, with President Xi is also excellent. I like him a lot. I consider him a friend. He considers me a friend," Trump said earlier this week in Japan, his first stop in Asia. "With that being said, he represents China; I represent the United States. His views are different on things."
The breadth and scale of the issues up for discussion in Beijing render the two-day stop, which begins Wednesday, the most consequential foreign visit of Trump's presidency. Coming midway through the US President's tour through five Asian capitals, his diplomacy in China acts as the fulcrum of a strategy for Asia that hinges upon Xi's cooperation on security and economic issues, which Trump has framed as essential to both American and Chinese success.
At the core is Trump's insistence that Beijing do more to isolate North Korea amid its nuclear provocations, believing that Pyongyang's chief trading partner has unparalleled power to choke off the regime. But the agenda also includes intensive talks on trade, a pet issue for a President intent on returning economic security to the American lower and middle classes.
To drive forward his economic message, Trump will be joined by dozens of American business executives who are expected to announce billions of dollars in agreements, some of which have been in the works for years. The inking of the deals in China can help Trump cast his visit as win, despite the lingering disputes and questions over the trading relationship.
In the lead-up to his visit, Trump's aides spent a series of focused, hour-long sessions preparing him for the various topical conversations expected to arise during his talks with Xi. But they also worked to coach him on the finer aspects of Chinese official protocol, believing that a seamless visit could help bolster the sense that Trump is an effective global statesman.
Trump's brand of brash and opinionated politics is an awkward fit in China, where diplomacy is conducted according to strict protocols and off-hand comments have the potential to cause unintentional offense. Some Chinese officials have expressed concern at what Trump may say in the country, and there's an acknowledgment that even China's "great firewall" that blocks numerous social media sites -- including Twitter -- will have little impact on the President's ability to fire off messages.
"I think that what concerns them is the unpredictability that they see," said Christopher Johnson, a former China analyst for the CIA who is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Typically the Chinese, what they want most in the bilateral relationship is stability. They don't need to like the US president. They just need the person to be predictable."
"I don't think they see that with President Trump," Johnson said.
In Xi, Trump finds a leader flexing newfound political muscle after emerging from China's Communist Party Congress having consolidated power in historic fashion. American officials aren't yet sure precisely what to make of the developments, which Xi could use to exert greater influence within China and possibly the wider region.
Trump, who has record low approval ratings and is politically hamstrung by investigations into his ties to Russia, has praised Xi's new stature, comparing him to a king during an interview on Fox Business channel last week. But he's also downplayed the potential power mismatch. Aboard Air Force One this week, he quickly interjected when a reporter referred to Xi as politically powerful.
"Excuse me, so am I," Trump insisted, identifying a surging stock market and low unemployment as evidence.
In Beijing, that view is likely to be validated by the outsized "state visit-plus" welcome planned by Chinese officials. Trump will be feted by military honor guards and dine at an elaborate state banquet. Upon his arrival, Xi will walk him through the Forbidden City and provide a personal tour of a collection of Chinese antiquities.
The welcome display is designed as much to flatter Trump as it is to demonstrate Xi's view of China as a global superpower, with both an ancient history and an increasingly modern society to call upon in his bid to compete with the United States. Past administrations have worked to counter China's influence in Asia through military alliances, trade agreements and soft-power programs like the Peace Corps.
Trump, however, has expressed less urgency in slowing the inevitable rise of China. He has withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the massive trade pact initiated by President Barack Obama to act as a counterbalance in Asia to China's economic pull. He has expressed a desire to wean allies off American support, encouraging the purchase of US-made weapons systems that would allow nations like Japan and South Korea to defend themselves. And he's moved to slash the budgets of agencies like the State Department, which execute the diplomatic efforts to spread American influence among China's neighbors.
Those steps, paired with the sense that Washington is gripped with intractable political gridlock, have led to the impression among some in the region that China is a better functioning power.
"There is a certain amount of sly happiness with what seems to be the decline of the United States. There's been a lot of commentary about dysfunction in American democracy, the impossibility of getting congressional agreement on basic things like having a budget and funding infrastructure," said David Dollar, a former US Treasury Department envoy based in China who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "This works well for China. The US seems to be in decline and yet, you know he's a practical President with whom China can deal on specific issues."
Approach to China
Trump's approach to China has been shaped both by his deeply felt opinion that unfair trade practices have badly harmed American workers and his view that the United States requires partners in combating threats to global security like North Korea.
As a presidential candidate, it was the first viewpoint that often dominated, and helped him win over white working class voters who ultimately propelled him to the presidency. He accused Beijing of raping the United States, vowed to label China a currency manipulator, and frankly declared the country an economic enemy.
It was a stance shaped partly by Steve Bannon, his onetime chief White House strategist and still an informal adviser who has pressed Trump to adopt a far tougher stance in countering China's trade practices.
But others in his administration have voiced an alternate view, insisting that China's economic rise is an inevitability that requires partnership -- not war -- with the United States.
The dueling options have led to some confusion among some Chinese officials on where, precisely, Trump stands.
As Trump himself has expressed divergent opinions on China, the impression that he's echoing the last person who advised him has lingered. That Trump's son-in-law and top White House adviser Jared Kushner was, at one stage, undertaking diplomatic efforts outside the usual State Department channels only fueled the impression that the Trump administration was approaching China without a fully formed strategy.
In recent months, however, the administration's approach has narrowed. Kushner has backed off on developing inroads to the Chinese government, a result of a more streamlined West Wing and questions over his family's real estate ties to Chinese investors.
And Trump has seen successes in convincing China to agree to new punitive measures against North Korea, though the actual results of those moves has yet to truly materialize.
Speaking in South Korea on Tuesday, Trump praised Xi for his help in isolating the nuclear menace and said the ramifications of those steps would soon be apparent.
"I want to just say that President Xi -- where we will be tomorrow, China -- has been very helpful. We'll find out how helpful soon. But he really has been very, very helpful," he said.