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Reporter's Notebook, China: Trump Finds Friendship Gets Him Only So Far

The president has many friends in Asia - but that hasn't heralded groundbreaking results so far during his trip through the region.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping make joint statements at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing
President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping make statements at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

BEIJING, China — It's all about the personal with President Donald Trump.

The back-slapping, handshaking and deal-making that propelled Trump through the business world for decades are the foundation of his diplomatic efforts in Asia this week, with advisers pointing to his warm relations with world leaders as critical to the trip's success.

Before departing on the 11-day journey to five nations, National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton said that Trump's positive relationship with China's President Xi Jinping "goes to the personal diplomacy aspect of the Mar a Lago meeting where they just got along very, very well."

And here in Beijing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson credited the "personal chemistry" between Trump and Xi as the reason the leaders can be "open" in their discussions, even when disagreeing.

The White House has done its best to project closeness between Trump and his counterparts. The president was greeted in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing with lavish welcome ceremonies. And here in China, Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrived at the Great Hall of the People to bands performing U.S. and Chinese national anthems the morning after an evening spent in the Forbidden City listening to opera.

Leaders are praising Trump, with South Korean President Moon remarking on the "sense of intimacy" he feels with the president and he commemorated the anniversary of his election victory.

"President Trump's election victory one year ago is already making America great again," Moon gushed on Tuesday.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even brought props along, with his own take on Trump's "Make America Great Again" caps. The two men, both avid golfers, signed "Donald and Shinzo Make Alliance Even Greater" hats before setting off for nine holes.

The moments made for great pictures, cementing Trump as a welcome and celebrated figure in Asia, but it's unclear it paid off with anything concrete.

US President Donald Trump holds hands with First Lady Melania Trump in the Forbidden City in Beijing on Nov. 8, 2017. US President Donald Trump arrived in Beijing on November 8 for the critical leg of his Asia tour to drum up an uncompromising, global front against the nuclear weapons ambitions of the "cruel dictatorship" in North Korea.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

Trump celebrated new investments between the U.S. and China as he departed Beijing, but he appears to have won few if any commitments from Xi on the trip's central issue: North Korea.

The leaders agreed that a nuclear North Korea was unacceptable, but seemed to settle on waiting to see what impact U.N. sanctions might yield in choking off North Korea's economy.

Relatively minor trade announcements in place of major North Korea progress was what some experts predicted prior to the trip — it's something they suggested might happen if the White House relied too heavily on their personal relationships, especially with the Chinese.

"The emphasis there is a mistake," Michael Mazza, a China expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told me before the trip of the insistence on the personal side of the relationships. Xi's newly buoyed position and consolidated power at home would likely make him less willing, not more, to concede points to the U.S., Mazza thought.

"If you don't ask [the Chinese] for substance or push them for progress, they will happily take a good visit, staged well, and walk away with the optics," said former Chief of Staff at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Scott Mulhauser. "The Chinese play the long-game spectacularly well."