President Donald Trump’s surprise missile strike in Syria stole the headlines, but he’s a man who has to multitask: After firing a salvo of Tomahawks Thursday night, he had to get back to a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping to chart the future of the U.S.-China relationship — no small feat.
If tensions were simmering beneath the meeting — Trump has publicly clashed with the Chinese over trade, the South China Sea, the “One China” policy, and North Korea — the Syria strikes didn’t help. China has repeatedly used its place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to veto strikes on Syria — most recently in January.
“We are concerned about the current situation in Syria and call for political settlement,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying in a news briefing Friday. “We hope all sides will stay calm and exercise restraint to prevent the escalation of tension.”
The U.S. missile strikes may not have been solely aimed at Bashar al-Assad. In the wake of President Obama’s 2013 failure to follow up on his “red line” warning about the use of chemical weapons, plenty of friends and foes around the world started questioning U.S. credibility. The strikes, the first U.S. attack on Assad’s regime, could well have given Xi a demonstration of American resolve — whether that means dealing with North Korea, or free navigation in the South China Sea.
Before the summit, Trump vowed to deal with North Korea “alone,” if China won’t offer constructive solutions, and he said he’d convey that threat to Xi when they met. Oddly, despite all expectations that Pyongyang would be at or near the top of the agenda for the two-day summit, North Korea didn’t even come up, according to Chinese media.
The strike could also serve as a message about U.S. willingness to take action in the South China Sea. For years, the Pentagon chafed at what it saw as the Obama White House’s unwillingness to push back against China. At his confirmation hearings, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States would prevent China from accessing the islands to which it lays claims of sovereignty.
Since then, China has only increased its island militarization — with a first fighter jet photographed in the Paracel island group this week. Though the White House later softened Tillerson’s words, a clear signal that the military has a longer leash and more freedom of action probably did not go unnoticed by Xi.
None of that solves the other pressing issue in the U.S-China relationship: trade friction. Just before the strikes, Trump and Xi, together with their first ladies and assorted sons-in-law, were smiling chummily in the Mar-a-Lago dining room. “We had a long discussion already,” Trump told reporters. “So far, I have gotten nothing. Absolutely nothing. But we have developed a friendship.”
The administration’s desire to keep the first meeting out of the policy weeds limits the concrete progress that can be made on addressing the trade irritants that have dogged the relationship for years. Beyond his vague calls for “fair trade” with China, Trump and his still-forming trade team will have to work out a suite of complicated questions: What is the fair value of the Chinese currency? Does Beijing have a market economy? Has it ever really played by the rules of the World Trade Organization? What would bilateral investment accords look like, and how could Western firms gain greater access to the Chinese market?
Those aren’t issues to be broached, let alone settled, over a two-day meeting. “As someone who worked for both sides of the aisle, it looks a lot easier on the outside than it does on the inside,” said Wendy Cutler, who was a lead negotiator on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal Trump poleaxed his first day in office. “They have no idea how complicated and detailed it really is,” she told Foreign Policy.
“We have a thousand reasons to get China-U.S. relations right, and not one reason to spoil the China-U.S. relationship,” Xi told Trump. He was slated to fly home Friday. In two days, the leaders did not hold a joint press conference and spoke only briefly to those reporters present.
FP’s David Francis contributed to this piece.
Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images