Trump, Xi at Mar-a-Lago for high-stakes summit

Palm Beach (United States) (AFP) - President Donald Trump greeted Xi Jinping to his Florida resort of Mar-a-Lago with a smile and a handshake Thursday, as cordiality replaced tough anti-China rhetoric during a first face-to-face encounter.

Trump, in his signature red power tie, welcomed his Chinese counterpart Xi, decked out in contrasting blue, to what the US leader likes to call the "Winter White House" for a superpower summit in the sun.

This is the first time the two leaders meet, after a US election that featured frequent barbs at China's "rape" of the US economy.

Trump had also ridiculed his predecessor's decision to offer Xi a coveted state dinner, saying that -- if elected -- he would serve the 63-year-old a Big Mac.

But inside Mar-a-Lago's ornate dining room -- with gold-trimmed chairs, fine cut glass and polished silverware -- there was little indication that McDonald's will be on the menu later Thursday.

The open agenda and the personal setting for the 24-hour summit are designed to allow the leaders to freewheel and build a rapport, in what is the world's most important relationship.

Amid concerns about security and public perceptions, Xi and his wife are not staying at Mar-a-Lago, but at a resort and spa a short drive down the palm-fringed coast that is, for now, watched by snipers, tactical units and a coastguard cutter.

But Matt Pottinger, the top White House Asia expert who was tasked with planning the summit, promised a "relaxed interaction" despite a backdrop of tensions over trade and North Korea.

The two leaders will be joined Thursday evening by US first lady and former model Melania Trump and Peng Liyuan -- a celebrated folk singer who was once more famous than her husband.

The group will "have an opportunity to have tea together, meet some of their senior cabinet officials, so to speak, on both sides, and have a dinner," Pottinger added.

Talks will continue up to a working lunch on Friday, that are likely to turn to more serious issues.

The summit has been somewhat overshadowed by renewed missile tests in North Korea and an apparent chemical attack in Syria that could prompt US military action.

The UN Security Council -- where both China and the United States hold a veto -- is expected to meet later to discuss a response to Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime.

- Peace offerings -

No one -- neither diplomats nor aides -- could be sure what would happen when the most powerful Chinese leader in a generation met a mercurial American president who has been in office less than 100 days and is capable of unraveling the most carefully-laid plans with a single 140-character tweet.

For that reason Xi arrived with a gift-basket of "tweetable deliverables", sources say, peace offerings on Trump's signature issues -- trade and jobs -- that he hopes will smooth over a relationship that began on shaky ground following disagreements over Taiwan.

Top of the list, according to a source briefed on Xi's plans, will be a package of Chinese investments aimed at creating more than 700,000 American jobs -- the number pledged to Trump by China's regional rival Japan, during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's February Mar-a-Lago visit.

There may also be offers to further open China's auto and agricultural markets, insiders say, and even some concessions on Chinese banks' transactions with North Korea, a vital financial lifeline for the country.

In return, Xi hopes to get assurances from Trump on punitive tariffs and that an American arms sale to Taiwan will be delayed, at least until after a major Communist Party meeting later this year.

Trump's position on democratically-ruled Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province, has been a major irritant since the billionaire politician accepted a protocol-breaking phone call from the Taiwanese president after his election victory.

- All politics is local -

The summit stakes, both domestic and international, are high.

Disagreements over approaches to North Korea or bilateral trade could, if mishandled, destabilize North East Asia or tank the global economy.

On the domestic political front, Xi is heading into a critical year. Ahead of a party congress that could cement his grip on power for years to come, he needs to show that he can deal with the US leader as an equal.

He "cannot afford to lose face while China aspires to be the new center of gravity for the world order," China political analyst Willy Lam told AFP.

Meanwhile, Trump -- who is reeling from legislative defeats, low approval ratings and unrelenting scandals -- desperately needs a win.

On the US side, however, North Korea will likely top the agenda following Wednesday's provocative missile launch.

The Trump White House worries Pyongyang is just months away from marrying nuclear and long-range missile technology and putting the west coast of the United States within striking distance.

While Beijing has condemned the missile tests, it has hesitated to take dramatic action against Pyongyang, fearing that the country's collapse would generate a flood of refugees across its borders and leave the US military on its doorstep.