WASHINGTON (AP) - The White House isn't criticizing China for removing term limits on its presidency, a sign of how U.S. policy toward the one-party state has shifted as the U.S. seeks cooperation on North Korea and trade.
China's rubber-stamp legislature opened the way Sunday for President Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely. Past U.S. administrations would have likely spoken out, given their long-standing criticism of China's record on democracy and human rights.
But President Donald Trump's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Monday that Chinese rules on the presidency are "a determination for China to make, not something for the United States to weigh in on."
If anything, Trump has been supportive of Xi's expansion of power. While the constitutional change means the 64-year-old leader could become president for life, Trump quipped at a luncheon this month for Republican donors: "I think it's great. Maybe we'll give that a shot someday."
Xi ascended to power in 2012. He's simultaneously leader of the ruling Communist Party and commander of the 1 million-member armed forces. The two-term limit on the presidency had been in place for more than 35 years. Removing it upends a system enacted by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1982 to prevent a return to the bloody excesses of Mao Zedong's lifelong dictatorship.
Sanders said Trump and Xi have a "good relationship," which has helped put pressure on North Korea over its nuclear program. She said their ties ensure China doesn't take advantage of the U.S. on trade.
"We're going to continue to push for what's best for America," Sanders told reporters.
Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank, said Trump's stance favors pragmatic cooperation on America's biggest concerns.
The Trump administration "has made a deliberate effort to stay away from Chinese domestic political issues," Yun said. Trump's remark has been cited in China as affirmation the party "is doing the right thing and even that the U.S. admires the Chinese system."
Sophie Richardson at Human Rights Watch said even if meant in jest, Trump's comment about Xi's indefinite rule "appears to ratify and cheer on abusive conduct." She discounted Sanders' line about China determining the presidential terms, because "people across China don't exactly get the chance to vote on these things."
Trump forged close ties with Xi soon after taking office, hosting him for an informal summit at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida last April. Xi returned the favor in November, with a grand state visit for Trump in China.
However, there are storm clouds on the horizon. Trump is determined to narrow the U.S. trade deficit with China, which was $375 billion last year. As part of that effort, the administration plans to impose heavy tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from various nations. It has already approved higher tariffs on Chinese-made washing machines, solar modules and some other goods.