DANANG, Vietnam — President Donald Trump will not have a formal sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin while the two attend a summit, the White House said Friday shortly before Trump landed in Vietnam, the fourth stop on his first official visit to Asia.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force Once, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders blamed scheduling conflicts on both sides for the fact that the leaders will not meet formally during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit taking place in the coastal city of Danang.
But Sanders said it was “possible” and “likely” that they could have a less formal encounter, either in Danang or later in the Philippines when Trump and Putin attend another regional conference.
“Now, they’re going to be in the same place. Are they going to bump into each other and say hello? Certainly possible and likely,” she said. “But in terms of a scheduled, formal meeting, there’s not one on the calendar and we don’t anticipate that there will be one.”
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had told reporters in Beijing on Thursday that there was no reason to schedule a meeting if the U.S. and Russia are unable to make significant progress on issues including Syria and Ukraine.
“The view has been if the two leaders are going to meet, is there something sufficiently substantive to talk about that would warrant a formal meeting,” he said.
Both sides have been working to reach agreement on how they hope to resolve Syria’s civil war once the Islamic State group is defeated. The potential understanding comes as an array of forces are near a final defeat of IS, the extremist group that once controlled vast stretches of both Iraq and Syria. Fighting the group is no longer top priority, shifting the focus back to Syria’s intractable conflict between Russian-backed President Bashar Assad’s government and armed rebels, to whom the U.S. lends at least rhetorical support.
The news comes a day after Trump set aside his blistering rhetoric in favor of friendly overtures to China on Thursday, trying to flatter his hosts into establishing a more balanced trade relationship and doing more to blunt North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Winding down his two days in Beijing, Trump suggested that if the U.S. and China jointly took on the world’s problems, “I believe we can solve almost all of them, and probably all of them.”
In the name of furthering that relationship, Trump largely shelved his campaign complaints about China, at least in public. He focused on exhorting Beijing to help with North Korea, an effort expected again to take center stage at an international summit in Vietnam on Friday.
The Chinese rolled out a lavish welcome for the American president. Trump returned the kindness, heaping praise on China’s Xi Jinping and predicting the two powers would work around entrenched differences. On Twitter later, Trump called his meetings with Xi “very productive on both trade and the subject of North Korea.”
On trade, Trump criticized the “very one-sided and unfair” relationship between the U.S. and China. But unlike his approach during the campaign, when he castigated China for what he contended were inappropriate trade practices, Trump said Thursday that he didn’t blame the Chinese for having taken advantage of the U.S.
Trump said China “must immediately address the unfair trade practices” that drive a “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.”
Reacting from afar, Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, said Trump’s comments “make the United States look weak and as if we are bowing to China’s whim. … Instead of giving China credit for stealing American jobs, the president should be holding China accountable.” Menendez, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is on trial for alleged bribery.
Tillerson offered a blunt assessment of China’s trade surplus with the United States, which in October widened by 12.2 percent from a year earlier to $26.6 billion. The total surplus with the United States for the first 10 months of the year was $223 billion.
“I think the best way to characterize it is that while we appreciate the long hours and the effort that our Chinese counterparts have put into those trade discussions, quite frankly in the grand scheme of a $300- to $500-billion trade deficit, the things that have been achieved are pretty small,” Tillerson told reporters in Beijing.
Tillerson also acknowledged there were differences in “tactics and the timing and how far to go with pressure” on North Korea. But he insisted that the two countries shared common objectives.
“There is no disagreement on North Korea,” he said.
The comments by Trump and his top diplomat came 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, a fixture of foreign leaders’ visits to Beijing, are intended to defuse complaints about China’s trade policies.
Xi promised a more open business environment for foreign companies in China and said his country was committed to further opening its economy to outside 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.”
It is unclear how far China will go to fulfill its pledges. Previous U.S. administrations have hailed market-opening promises only to be left disappointed.
Before arriving in China, Trump had delivered a stern message to Beijing, using an address in South Korea to call on China, North Korea’s biggest trade partner, to do more to confront and isolate the North.
Trump appeared far more conciliatory on Thursday, 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.”
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