Xi-Trump maiden summit yields little

Xi-Trump maiden summit yields little

While there were few substantive gains for both, the Syria missile strikes have tilted the balance in favour of US.

The 25-hour long first summit between the 45th US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club resort in Florida on April 6-7, 2017, was a meeting of the leaders of the world’s two largest economies.

Coincidentally, both needed the summit to project to their respective domestic constituencies an image of confidence, strength and the ability to best the other. Few gains were expected from this summit with Xi Jinping’s goal limited to keeping relations stable till the 19th Party Congress later this year.

The meeting was requested by Chinese President Xi who apprehended that US President-elect Trump’s telephone conversation with Taiwan’s Tsai Ingwen on December 2, could signal the start of deterioration in Sino-US relations. Back channels using Henry Kissinger, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai and Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi were activated.

Some opposition to the summit was, however, discernible in a speech on January 20 by retired PLA Major General Jin Yinan, a national security strategy expert and former Director of the Institute of Strategy Study at the PLA’s National Defence University. Asserting that the US is “a declining empire”, he questioned the timing of the meeting. The speech has circulated widely on the internet in China.

Chinese officials, already deeply suspicious of Trump’s policy towards Beijing after his phone call with Tsai Ing-wen, were concerned that his unpredictability could embarrass Xi. In the end, Trump’s decision ordering 59 cruise missile strikes against Syria — a country with which China has close ties and on whose behalf it has used the veto in the UNSC — upstaged Xi’s visit! Trump informed Xi that the strikes were in progress only at the end of the dinner.

The Chinese president and his delegation refrained from comment and Xi, possibly because he was invested in the summit, pertinently displayed no sign of displeasure. In fact, far from cutting short his visit, Xi made an unplanned stop at Alaska on the way home ostensibly for refuelling and met the governor and other officials!

The official Chinese news agency Xinhua’s despatch of April 7, reporting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement on the summit also made no mention of the missile strikes on Syria and neither did the following day’s Xinhua and Global Times reports.

In contrast, reactions from China to the missile strikes against Syria were swift and sharp, with an editorial in the state-run Global Times on April 7, observing that Trump's first major move in international affairs “leaves an impression that the decision was made in haste and not without contradiction”.

The missile strikes, which while unexpected appear to have been deliberately timed, will have conveyed to the Chinese delegation the Trump administration’s readiness to act quickly, decisively and use military force to achieve its goals. It reinforced Trump’s warning to punish North Korea unilaterally.

Hits and misses

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that during discussions, the leaders “agreed to work together to convince the DPRK to peacefully resolve the issue.” He later told journalists that Trump had told Xi that he welcomed ideas from China but his administration understands that “it creates unique problems for them and challenges and that we would, and are, prepared to chart our own course if this is something China is just unable to coordinate with us.”

There was no agreement on issues of regional and maritime security. Stating that discussions had been “candid,” Tillerson said “President Trump noted the importance of adherence to international norms in the East and South China Sea and to previous statements on non-militarisation.” Trump and Tillerson have both earlier said that China must stop its expansion and “island-building” activities in the South China Sea.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said trade talks were “very direct and frank” with emphasis on specific action items in the short term. US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross highlighted that agreement on a 100-day plan is very unusual in trade discussions between the US and China.

There were wide differences between the two countries on Taiwan and Tibet-related issues, adherence to the three China-US joint communiqués and the ‘One China policy,’ with US briefings not mentioning any of these. The US did not agree to  China’s formulation of a “new type of big power relations” and did not accept Xi’s invitation to join the ‘One Belt, One Road.’

Beijing, too, held back on its anticipated offer of large investments in the US for creating jobs. No joint statement was issued. A Xinhua despatch of April 8 hinted that the summit ended with pledges to “expand win-win cooperation” and “manage differences.”

The summit yielded little by way of immediate substantive gains for either the US or China, but the missile strikes against Syria have tilted the balance in favour of the US. It nevertheless does confirm the interest of both countries, and especially China, in keeping relations stable and avoiding confrontation.

(The writer is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy)