By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump has told visitors that his Mar-a-Lago retreat is set up perfectly for foreign visits, but the Chinese side was initially hesitant when word came that Trump would like to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping there.
Even after seeing images of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's back-slapping sessions with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in February, Chinese officials thought the oceanfront, Spanish-style club in Palm Beach, Florida, lacked the symbolic significance of the White House itself.
“They thought, no, it has to be the White House, the symbolism of that,” a senior administration official told Reuters. “They were ultimately convinced that this was worth doing. It’s unusual because most foreigners realize that being invited to the president’s personal place is a big deal.”
Trump and Xi are to hold their first summit encounter beginning on Thursday at Mar-a-Lago, a property that original owner Marjorie Merriweather Post's estate willed to the U.S. government for use as a diplomatic and presidential retreat after her death in 1973.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing that the Chinese side was fine with having the meeting there.
“President Trump, after taking office, announced that Mar-a-Lago would be the winter White House. The U.S. proposal to hold the U.S.-China heads of state meeting there, I think, represents the importance that the U.S. side places on this meeting. China respects the U.S. side’s arrangements," she said.
No matter where the heads of state meet, "the most important thing is to develop China-U.S. relations and make contributions to both countries and the world," she said.
Topping the agenda at Mar-a-Lago will be U.S.-China trade ties and U.S. requests for China to help rein in its nuclear-armed neighbor North Korea.
Trump bought the estate in 1985 and turned it into an exclusive club, which now boasts a membership fee of $200,000 and is a haven for the tony Palm Beach set who pull up to the gate in Bentleys and Rolls-Royces.
"It's a place where he feels comfortable and at home, and where he can break the ice with Xi Jinping without the formality, really, of a Washington meet-up," said another senior White House official.
Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, will join Trump and his wife, Melania, for dinner on Thursday night then Trump and Xi will have a series of meetings there on Friday. The entire visit will last less than 24 hours.
“What matters is that the two of them get together for a successful summit, even if it’s on the moon," said former U.S. ambassador to China, Max Baucus.
"However, I do think that Mar-a-lago will probably help enhance conversation between the two of them. President Trump can show President Xi around, show him the digs. Trump is very proud of that, and President Xi will be interested in seeing all of that.”
Past U.S. presidents have often turned to settings away from the trappings of Washington to conduct delicate diplomacy. George H.W. Bush had his seaside estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, and George W. Bush frequently played host to foreign leaders at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Trump's immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, used the Sunnylands retreat in Rancho Mirage, California, as a site for an informal summit with Xi in 2013.
While Trump treated Abe to golf, no such outing is planned for the leader of China.
Mar-a-Lago has already been the scene of some controversy for Trump.
When a North Korean missile test disrupted Abe's visit there, Trump and the Japanese leader were seen at a dinner table on the terrace discussing how to respond, as club members looked on from nearby tables.
(Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Caren Bohan and Alistair Bell)