ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
President Trump is hosting a dinner tonight in Florida for Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife. It's the start of a high-stakes summit meeting that's expected to focus on North Korea and international trade. Trump wants Xi to use his influence to curtail North Korea's nuclear program. We'll hear more on that in a moment. But he's also eager to address the U.S. trade deficit with China, which was a major focus of the president's campaign.
NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to talk about it. And Scott, the two presidents chose to hold this meeting at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, but it doesn't sound like a vacation - very much a working meeting.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It is, Robert. The leaders are hoping this informal setting will help them, again, to sort of build a personal relationship. But this is serious business. Xi won't be teeing off on the Trump golf course like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did. Trump told a group of American CEOs this week he wants to have a business-like conversation with Xi about what he sees as a very problematic trade imbalance between the U.S. and China.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think we're going to have a very interesting talk. We're having - have a lot of respect for him. I've spoken to him numerous times. But we have to do better because our deficit with China, as you know - $504 billion - that's a year.
HORSLEY: The president's overstating that trade deficit a bit. It was at $347 billion last year, 310 billion if you add in services, which is a smaller deficit than in 2015 but, to be sure, still a pretty big number.
SIEGEL: China was a frequent target for Trump during the campaign, and he threatened to crack down on what he described as unfair trade practices. Well, what's he actually done so far?
HORSLEY: Actually not very much. He did not label China a currency manipulator as he threatened to do. He hasn't slapped big tariffs on China. The only thing he's done so far really is order a study of the factors contributing to the trade deficit, which could be seen as a 90-day stalling tactic. But economist David Dollar of the Brookings Institution says that go-slow approach from the Trump administration is actually a good thing.
DAVID DOLLAR: I think so far the Chinese are pleasantly surprised, and they're hoping this summit and other discussions will, you know, convince the United States not to move ahead on some of those harsher protectionist ideas.
HORSLEY: Trump will be encouraging Xi to open up the still heavily protected Chinese market to U.S. exports, but even the White House is signaling, don't look for any big announcements on tariffs or the like to come out of this first face-to-face meeting.
SIEGEL: Scott, Donald Trump's America First approach to foreign policy has created some openings for Chinese - for the Chinese leader to play a larger role on the world stage. Is that something that they're likely to talk about in Mar-a-Lago?
HORSLEY: You know, this is another area where there's been a bit of a gap between candidate Trump and President Trump. During the campaign, Trump complained about the burden the U.S. was carrying in protecting allies like South Korea and Japan, even going so far as to suggest they should develop their own nuclear arsenals rather than relying on the U.S. military umbrella.
But as president, Trump has reaffirmed those alliances, and he's also begun to view North Korea as a potential threat to the United States itself, not just our regional allies. So he will certainly be urging China to do more to crack down on North Korea.
SIEGEL: This Trump-Xi summit also comes on the heels of the chemical weapons attack in Syria which the president has acknowledged has actually changed his thinking somewhat. How?
HORSLEY: If you go back to 2013, you know, Trump argues strongly against U.S. military intervention in Syria. But this week, after the attack on innocent civilians, his secretary of state said it demands a serious response. And Trump talked about this with reporters on Air Force One when he was asked if the U.S. should try to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
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TRUMP: I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity. And he's there, and I guess he's running things. So something should happen.
HORSLEY: But Trump would not elaborate on what steps he is considering.
SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks.
HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.