BEIJING: Chinese President Xi Jinping told US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Saturday that he expected President Donald Trump's upcoming visit to be “wonderful", as ties appear warmer following tensions over how to handle North Korea.
Xi smiled as he greeted Tillerson at the imposing Great Hall of the People across Tiananmen Square for talks expected to focus on North Korea and Trump's November visit.
The two men, however, did not mention the hermit state in public remarks before their private talks.
Xi recalled that he and Trump have spoken on the phone several times and that they already met at the US leader's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in April and the G20 summit in Hamburg in July.
“I have enjoyed each and every one of those engagements and we have made considerable efforts to push for the development of China-US relations," Xi said.
“The two of us have also maintained a good working relationship and personal friendship," he said, adding that he believed Trump's visit “will be a special, wonderful and successful one".
Trump has touted his friendship with Xi but he has also prodded the Chinese leader in recent months to exert more pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile activities.
The Trump administration angered Beijing this summer by slapping sanctions on Chinese companies accused of supporting North Korea's weapons programme.
But China, which accounts for 90 percent of North Korea's international trade, has since backed a slew of additional United Nations sanctions against its neighbour.
A senior US official said this week that China appears to be on board with the plan to squeeze Pyongyang.
“This is a relationship that continues to grow and mature on the strength of the relationship between yourself and President Trump," Tillerson told Xi.
“And we look forward to advancing that relationship at the upcoming summit."
Tillerson also met with China's top diplomat, State Councillor Yang Jiechi, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi to lay the groundwork for Trump's trip, which will include stops in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines between November 3 and 14.
“Let us concentrate on cooperation and properly manage our differences in the spirit of mutual respect and mutual benefit so that we can keep moving the China-US relationship forward in the right direction," Yang said.
Wang told Tillerson: “At present, China-US relations overall have a positive momentum and have arrived at an important opportunity to progress further."
Tillerson had been due to arrive on Friday evening but his aircraft's problems forced him to travel to China on a military transport plane on Saturday.
– ‘Two trains of thought' –
While it has backed UN sanctions against Pyongyang, Beijing has insisted that the punitive measures must be coupled with efforts to organise peace talks.
China has proposed a plan, which Russia has backed, in which North Korea would suspend its weapons programmes in return for the United States to halt its military drills in the region.
But the North conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on September 3, and Trump and Kim have traded increasingly personal insults that have raised fears of a conflict.
“There appear to be two trains of thought in the international community regarding denuclearization of the peninsula: Crush North Korea or talk to North Korea so as to increase its sense of security. China and Russia hold the latter view," China's state-run Global Times newspaper said in an editorial.
The acting US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, Susan Thornton, told sceptical US lawmakers ahead of Tillerson's trip that China was making “growing, if uneven" progress in the strategy to strongarm Pyongyang.
“We have recently seen Chinese authorities take additional actions," she said, referring to new controls on the cross-border trade and finance that is North Korea's economic lifeline.
On Thursday, China said it was ordering North Korean firms on its territory to close by January.
The announcement came days after China confirmed it will limit exports of refined petroleum products to North Korea from October 1 while banning imports of textiles from its neighbour.