The two leaders were meeting for the first time, but what should have been a prime opportunity to forge a personal connection and recalibrate the world’s most important bilateral relationship has been overshadowed by the biggest military action of Trump’s presidency.
Hours before the two presidents met, Trump predicted aboard Air Force One that “China will be stepping up” to help stop North Korea’s nuclear program.
The concern for the Chinese, Zhang said, is that Trump just gave the world proof he’s not afraid to take military action unilaterally.
“This strike may ironically strengthen Trump’s bargaining position,” Zhang said. “The decision to launch a strike may not be linked to the summit per se, but the outcome — this development — may strengthen (his position), because many Chinese strategic thinkers, they do think the United States is considering a preemptive option on North Korea.”
Global Times, a provocative but state-run Chinese tabloid that often takes hard-line stances, ran an editorial saying Trump was “flexing his muscle” with the action in Syria.
“This is his first major decision on international affairs, and his haste and inconsistency has left people with a deep impression,” the Global Times said.
“He wanted to prove that he dares to do what Obama did not dare. While Obama was equivocal, his attitude is clear-cut. He also proves to the world that he isn’t merely a ‘businessman president.’ He will mobilize US military force without any hesitation when necessary,” it added.
But Willy Lam, a professor at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Beijing wasn’t a major player and the conflict hadn’t been expected to top the agenda during discussions between Xi and Trump.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Embassy in the US likely would have pushed to make a big deal of Xi’s visit, Lam says, but would have been aware of the situation in Syria, he added.
“The Chinese of course would insist on being the given the limelight, because this is Xi Jinping’s first visit (to see Trump),” said Lam. “But at the same time, they are on US soil, so there is only so much they can do.”
The news of the US strike on Syria appeared to be downplayed in Chinese news coverage, which led with the summit. State broadcaster CCTV put news of the airstrikes fifth in its midday news rundown.
“The meeting will be of great significance to charting China-US relationship in a new era, advancing the development of bilateral ties in a healthy and stable way from a new starting point, and promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and the world at large,” Xinhua, China’s state news agency, quoted Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang as saying.
The meeting was conceived as a much-needed opportunity for two of the world’s most powerful men to build a rapport, establish some mutual trust and show their respective domestic audiences that they are learning how to work with the other.
Trump had used China as a punching bag on the campaign trail — accusing it of “raping” the US economy and stealing millions of American jobs but Trump has not followed through on campaign promises to label China a “currency manipulator” on day one of his presidency or to impose steep tariffs on all Chinese imports.