Xi would ideally have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Trump, amid all the pomp and ostentatious kitsch of what Trump has called his ‘Winter White House’, and impressed on the U.S. administration that China’s long-sought reality of a ‘G2′ of sorts with the United States was now a fait accompli amid Trump’s supposed lurch away from the old shibboleths of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the second world war.
For Xi, the Mar-a-Lago summit could have represented the start of a new era not only in U.S.-China relations, but also served to carve out an unmistakable role for Beijing in global leadership something the Chinese leaders sought to impress on the world’s gathered elite at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January.
The Trump administration, however, had other plans. Just before the two leaders sat down to dine on steak, Trump authorized a major unilateral use of force, with the U.S. military firing 59 cruise missiles against a Syrian military airfield in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians days earlier.
When Trump informed Xi of the strike later in the evening, the subtext was likely laid on so thick that Xi could have cut it with his steak knife: the United States remains a superpower and the only country both capable and willing of this sort of unilateral action. Tellingly, the Chinese Foreign Ministry, while noting the strike, did not offer outright condemnation.
If this wasn’t a moment of humiliation for Xi with nationalistic audiences back home looking for signs of strength against a U.S. leader who had been vocal about pushing back against China, it was at least a moment of forced weakness.
As Xi told Trump as they sat down to dine, China saw “a thousand reasons to make the China-U.S. relationship work; there is no reason to break it”. We have little evidence that the Trump administration planned the authorization of the Syria strike to coincide with the summit or to send China any particular message, but the timing was an uncanny reminder for Beijing of the differences that remain between the U.S. and China; that the two remain near-peers in the realm of contemporary great powers, and not absolute peers as China would will it.
What’s more, the strike all but bumped what should have been a major moment in U.S.-China relations to below-the-fold as global media immediately seized on the Trump administration’s dalliance with unilateralism in the Middle East. Indeed, just as unexpected conflagrations in the region stemming from the Arab Uprisings drew attention away from the Obama administration’s “rebalance” to Asia, so did Trump’s Syria strikes depress the significance of the Mar-a-Lago meeting.
Even if unintentional, Xi may have drawn important lessons from Trump’s decision on Thursday evening to authorize strikes on Syria. The decision represented both a capricious reversal in policy and a dangerously impulsive willingness to escalate. For China, whose foreign policy bureaucracy continues to wrangle with the overall direction of Trump’s foreign policy amid mixed signals, factoring these tendencies in U.S. decision-making on the North Korean problem and the South China Sea will be a necessity.
As Xi left Mar-a-Lago, what became clear is that hard work in U.S.-China relations in the Trump era still lies ahead. US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin refused to categorically rule out that the United States would move to designate China a currency manipulator, for example.
And, despite some agenda-setting on the bilateral trade agenda, Xi offered Trump no concrete deliverables to show off to his base, leaving the potential for bitter fights ahead on Chinese tariffs toward U.S. car manufacturers among other issues. A new U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue is one of the few outcomes, but another bilateral talk-shop is hardly a headline-grabbing (or tweetable) deliverable.
Similarly, though U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters after the summit that Trump and Xi had held productive and “very comprehensive” discussions on the North Korean issue, the overall prognosis for greater U.S.-China cooperation on the issue remains grim. Xi conveyed to Trump the “unique problems” North Korea poses for China, suggesting that Beijing remains unconvinced by any U.S. plans for solving an increasingly intractable crisis.
The good news for Trump and Xi is that they’ll have plenty of other opportunities to keep these exchanges going, even if the hotly anticipated Mar-a-Lago summit may have fizzled and failed to meet expectations on both sides. Trump has accepted Xi’s invitation for a state visit in 2017. In meantime, even if Trump’s timing was accidental, Xi will be left wondering how Trump’s vagaries in Syria may translate to the South China Sea or North Korea.
Ankit Panda is a senior editor at The Diplomat where he writes on international security, diplomacy and economics in the Asia-Pacific region. Copyright belongs to the South China Morning Post.