US President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping recently met for the first time in Mar-a-Lago, Florida (Trump’s “Southern White House”) for a two-day conference. The meeting was portrayed as an important, perhaps even a milestone, meeting.
However, even before the meeting ended, some US media talking heads labeled the meeting a failure. They had two reasons for saying this.
One, there was no communiqué, much less a treaty, to end the conference. There was not even an announcement of the major accomplishments of the meeting.
There had been such notices at the close of a number of previous meetings. Therefore, since there were no formal deals reached, the meeting was considered to be a bust.
Two, during dinner on the first day of the conference, President Trump informed President Xi that he had just ordered a big missile strike on an air force base in Syria in response to the Syrian regime using sarin gas to kill its opponents (including children and even babies). President Xi was, to say the least, surprised.
To grasp whether this is a true picture, one must first note that the US media are highly partisan (more than perhaps anytime in recent history) and are comprised of an inordinately high percentage of Trump haters. The US media also is biased against China, figuring a rising China (which China certainly is) will dominate the future world order and will spell an end to the West’s global system which the media likes.
Thus, the media was inclined to report in a negative fashion on the event.
Another criterion, arguably a better one, to gauge whether the meeting succeeded or not, is to ask: what were the hopes and goals of the participants going into the confab? What did Trump and Xi want? Were they pleased with the outcomes of the event?
President Xi’s objectives were to have a good first get-together with President Trump, the world’s most important leader, and dampen speculation that they would not get along or that there were explosive issues that divided them and the two countries.
This was crucial to President Xi because he will convene a landmark meeting of the Chinese Communist Party in the fall. At this party congress, there will be vital personnel changes and certain policies will be enshrined, including continuing the anti-corruption drive Xi had launched after the last congress in 2012; economic growth targets (that hinge to unemployment, trade and more); decisions on China’s major foreign policy goals; and much more.
President Xi calculated that a convivial meeting with President Trump will make his party congress go easier and end better.
President Xi did not bring any big specific issues in Sino-American relations that he aimed to resolve during his meeting with President Trump.
President Trump did have specific objectives in his vest pocket when he met with President Xi: fixing their trade imbalance (that connects to creating jobs and fixing the huge US debt); easing tensions in the South China Sea (that requires China’s help); and getting Beijing to assist Washington in dealing with North Korea’s bad behavior, in particular, its nuclear weapon and missile tests.
But President Trump did not expect a deal in the form of a communiqué, written accord, or even a Chinese public announcement. What he wanted was for China to take some action on these three matters in the near future. Trump had reason for optimism that he would get something, perhaps quite a lot, from China.
The two leaders did talk issues of substance and even made some decisions on work to be done: on cyber security, law enforcement, and a code of safe conduct affecting naval and military encounters.
The pitch that President Trump shocked President Xi in announcing the missile attacks on Syria, and may have even embarrassed Xi, cannot be denied.
But President Xi is known to be a leader that can handle surprises. Clearly, he is an individual with aplomb and the ability to stay in control. Plus, Henry Kissinger reportedly told him during a visit to China late last year that Donald Trump is brusque and often says and does unexpected things, but that he is someone Xi can deal with.
Then, one must ask this question: Would it have been better for President Trump not to have told his counterpart then or immediately thereafter? In Xi’s mind, hiding or even delaying saying what Trump had done would probably not have been a mark of friendship or an expression of confidence in their relationship.
Anyway, China does not approve of the use of poison gas to kill people. In fact, it acceded to the 1925 Geneva Convention outlawing its use more than six decades ago. Also, China cares about promoting a positive global image. Lastly China has no serious involvement in the civil conflict in Syria, and President Xi was not, judging from the way the meeting proceeded, put off by Trump’s action.
Another relevant fact is that neither President Trump nor President Xi wanted to create unrealistic expectations about US-China relations. The two nations are competitors, big time competitors. Some observers even believe the so-called Thucydides Trap (the inevitability of the status quo power and its challenger going to war) applies to current Sino-US relations.
Yet both leaders are fully aware of the reality that the other is vitally important and their relationship will determine whether the international financial system works, proliferation and terrorism are controlled, and much more. Their working together is a sine qua non for global interactions to operate efficiently.
In addition, one must keep in mind that President Xi preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton (and no doubt still does); that President Trump has not made an issue of China’s human rights or governance (which previous presidents did, and which China did not appreciate); that Trump has spoken highly of China’s efforts to “build the world” (and has in fact approved of the US joining that effort, which President Obama opposed); and that under Obama, US-China relations had not been worse since before the Nixon administration.
Another factor is that President Trump has expressed great admiration for China, including its recent accomplishments (which to many in the West evoke apprehension). Chinese leaders deeply like this.
Before the close of the event, Trump’s granddaughter, whom he has encouraged to learn Chinese (in fact, she speaks it daily) sang in Chinese and recited Tang Dynasty poetry before President Xi and First Lady Peng Liyuan. This, onlookers said, was the highlight of their trip. One witness remarked that from this, Chinese realized Trump deeply prized China and its culture and wanted to be China’s friend.
After the meeting, President Trump spoke of the tremendous goodwill and friendship it generated and the “great honor” it was to have President Xi and the First Lady visit. President Xi and the Chinese media expressed delight over the meeting and optimism about US-China relations.
Though the meeting was mainly a get-to-know-each-other encounter, the two leaders did talk issues of substance and even made some decisions on work to be done: on cyber security, law enforcement, and a code of safe conduct affecting naval and military encounters. The two leaders also agreed on a 100-day plan to address the trade issue, as President Trump wanted.
President Trump wants to make deals (arguably the best way to carry on foreign relations with China) and believes he can. He thus graciously accepted President Xi’s invitation to visit China in the fall.
Finally, there was a critical (but largely unnoticed) “meeting of the minds” between the two presidents at the meeting. One might even say there was an “ideological convergence”: pragmatism permeated the meeting.
All of this suggests a good beginning, which is what the meeting was supposed to be. Results to follow…