EXECUTIVE

Trump China talks: Why Mar-a-Lago? Experts weigh in on host site

President talks to 'Fox & Friends' at Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride event

 

President Trump's critics are questioning the location of his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping – Trump’s stately Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach, Fla.

CNN’s Jake Tapper mocked President Trump: “…a visit to his private Florida club, Mar-a-Lago. Awkward, perhaps, to suggest a round of golf with a man whose country you just accused of raping America.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Politico about his thoughts on Mar-a-Lago: “I do know, in the past an ideal setting for real serious negotiations has been Camp David.”

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And, of course, Democrats have asked government watchdog groups to scrutinize Trump’s security and travel expenses for Mar-a-Lago.

But experts who have dealt directly with the Chinese in White House negotiations in the past agree that Mar-a-Lago is a fine location for such a meeting. Dining al fresco there and playing golf at Trump National with the president earned Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plenty of plaudits at home.

Palm Beach County Commissioner Steve Abrams said the county was fortunate to have a nearby Japanese garden, which First Lady Melania Trump toured with Abe’s wife.

Golf probably won’t be on the menu this time because the game is widely scorned by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. But Abrams says Trump could get lucky, again.

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“We happen to have a very fine festival taking place while the president of China is here, which we have brought to the attention of the White House,” said Abrams.

Palm Beach County is hosting a Chinese Lantern Festival that has a “ping pong diplomacy” theme commemorating the Nixon administration's overtures to the country.

“So it would be quite outstanding to see the two presidents take part,” Abrams said.

The visit by President Xi was reportedly arranged at the urgent request of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s contacts in China who worked with Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law.

“There simply has not been enough time to arrange a formal visit by Mr. Xi,” said J.J. Tkacik of the Alexandria, Va.-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.

Tkacik said he cannot imagine a more appropriate venue to host the Chinese president. Mar-a-Lago, a National Historic Landmark, was designed in the 1920s to be a winter retreat for presidents and foreign dignitaries.

“Washington, D.C., is too hectic, New York’s logistics and security too complicated, Camp David is too rustic,” he said. “Airports, hotels and logistics near Palm Beach are all world class.”

That doesn’t mean issues won't arise, he said. 

“The Chinese underground will certainly work with overseas Chinese students in Florida’s and other Southern universities to organize welcome crowds and counter-demonstrations,” Tkacik said.

Such protests have proved troublesome for past presidents. President George W. Bush was flogged in the American media when a member of the Falun Gong, outlawed in China, used her press credentials to access the White House South Lawn and heckled the Chinese president during a summit welcome ceremony in 2006.

Less reported in the U.S., according to experts in China, is that President Bush is still more popular there than his successor.

“Obama initially tried to build a cordial relationship with China, but soon launched ‘rebalancing’ with trade and military,” said Shen Dingli, of Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Despite the limited time to prepare for such an important meeting, the pressure will be on, from the Chinese side and the U.S. media, to make the visit go flawlessly.

“It typically takes a lot of negotiation on protocol, precedent, sequence and scope of topics, press coverage and visuals, who will participate, and ability to keep protesters out of audio and visual range,” said the Brooking Institute’s Kenneth Lieberthal, who served on President Clinton’s National Security Council. “President Xi wants to get a feel for a mercurial American leader and wants to do so before bad things happen. Nobody wants to see a meeting like this go badly.”