Xi-Trump meeting, not a great start

Xi-Trump meeting, not a great start

The first meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump, the world’s two most powerful leaders, went off better than expected. It was not a shallow bromance. Neither did their interaction seem icy as was Trump’s recent meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Given the China-bashing Trump engaged in on his campaign trail — he had described China as America’s enemy and threatened to declare it a currency manipulator on day one of his presidency — there were fears that the two countries were on a collision course.

Sparks were expected to fly at their first meeting. That did not happen. They discussed contentious issues, including North Korea, the South China Sea dispute and trade and decided to establish a new high-level US-China Comprehensive Dialogue to oversee diplomatic, security, economic, law enforcement and cybersecurity, and social and cultural issues. The new mechanism will replace the existing Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which apparently did not yield results.

The Xi-Trump meeting did not give a joint statement and the two sides issued separate statements. And these statements are telling. Neither mentioned Taiwan.

It may be recalled that during his election campaign, Trump promised to review US policy on Taiwan. On his election as president, he made a U-turn. In February, in his first phone call to the Chinese president, he smoothed Beijing’s ruffled feathers by reaffirming Washington’s continued support to the ‘One China policy.’ The silence on Taiwan following the meeting last week doesn’t bode well. Was this issue not raised at all? Or did Xi raise it but fail to get Trump’s reiteration on the ‘One-China policy’?

Though the Xi-Trump talks were an ice-breaker, the US bombing of Syria, even as Xi was at a dinner hosted by Trump, was seen as being insensitive, boorish and ill-conceived. Syria is China’s ally. The Xi government has repeatedly vetoed United Nations Security Council resolutions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That the US was raining down missiles on Syria while Xi was dining with Trump is likely to have drawn Beijing’s ire. Sections of the Chinese media have interpreted this as an insult handed out to the Chinese leader. Xi can be expected to come under pressure from hardliners at home to show more toughness in dealing with the Trump administration. Trump has been accused of bombing Syria — a close ally of Ru­ssia — to counter critics at home that he is soft on Russia. To show he is not, Trump may have irked the Chinese. He has managed to undo gains made at his meeting with Xi. He has nipped a nascent rapprochement in the bud.