Trump-Xi summit: Much ado about nothing?

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Thursday and Friday marked the long-awaited first face-to-face meeting between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Convened at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s estate in Florida, the meeting was billed as an informal relationship-building exercise and was designed to frame the relationship in the best possible light. Yet US military action in Syria would largely derail that narrative, despite glowing comments from both Trump and Xi.

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Both Xi and Trump brought their top officials to the meeting. On the Chinese side, Xi was joined by China’s top diplomat, State Councilor Yang Jiechi; Foreign Minister Wang Yi; Vice Premier Wang Yang, the rough counterpart to the US treasury secretary; and Wang Huning, director of the policy research office of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and one of Xi’s top economic advisers.

Trump, meanwhile, was accompanied by a good portion of his Cabinet: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (who greeted Xi at the airport), Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and Defense Secretary James Mattis, as well as National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. Also in attendance were figures with less important-sounding titles, but potentially more influence over Trump’s policy decisions, including chief White House strategist Steve Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kushner and Ivanka’s children – Trump’s grandchildren – also made an appearance, welcoming Xi and his wife by singing a Chinese folk song and reciting a Tang-dynasty poem.

The mood at the summit was upbeat. At dinner on Thursday, Trump joked he had “gotten nothing” from talks with Xi, presumably meaning he hadn’t secured any concessions. But the next day, Trump told reporters that “we have made tremendous progress in our relationship with China” and described his personal relationship with Xi as “outstanding.”

“I believe lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away,” Trump predicted.

Xi, in his remarks, stressed the importance of US-China relations. There are “a thousand reasons to make the China-US relationship work, and no reason to break it,” he told Trump, Xinhua reported.

A read-out from China’s Foreign Ministry described the talks as “thorough, friendly, and lasting a long time.” The statement also said Trump had accepted Xi’s invitation to visit China sometime in the next year.

The most solid outcome of the talks was a proposal from China on how to restructure high-level dialogues. The Obama administration called its framework the Strategic and Economic Dialogue; the Trump administration is expected to scrap that formulation. Instead, Xi proposed four new dialogue mechanisms, focusing on diplomacy and security; the economy; law enforcement and cybersecurity; and social and people-to-people exchanges.

In remarks to reporters, Tillerson confirmed that the US and China have officially adopted this framework as the new high-level bilateral dialogue platform. The “US-China Comprehensive Dialogue will be overseen by the two presidents,” Tillerson said, and will be based on the “four pillars” mentioned above.

According to Xinhua, Trump and Xi also pledged to “advance negotiations on the bilateral investment treaty, and explore the pragmatic cooperation in infrastructure construction and energy.” No new deals or concrete proposals were unveiled at the meeting, however.

Tellingly, Chinese media readouts made no mention of the North Korea issue, despite US briefings placing that item near the top of the agenda. The closest Xi came to mentioning North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs was urging “proper” handling of “regional hotspots” and calling for strengthened U.S.-China cooperation on non-proliferation.

Tillerson provided a bit more detail on the topics under discussion, telling reporters that fostering a “fair economic relationship” was high on the agenda for the Trump administration. Tillerson also said he was “hopeful that China will find ways to exercise influence over North Korea’s actions.” In a brief nod to the challenges that exist in multiple dimensions of the relationship, he also noted that “the United States does recognize the challenges China can present to American interests.” Tillerson specifically listed the interests of US allies, cyber attacks, and human rights and religious freedom issues as points of concern in the US-China relationship; maritime disputes, including the South China Sea, were not directly referenced.

Tillerson later clarified that during the meeting “President Trump noted the importance of adherence to international norms in the East and South China Seas and to previous statements on non-militarization.”

The Trump administration “is committed to ensuring” that US-China “ties endure for the next four years.” Tillerson said. Washington will be looking to move relations along a “constructive, cooperative, and results-oriented trajectory,” he added

One other phrase was notable for its absence. Chinese media reports didn’t mention “new type great power relations,” long Xi’s preferred catchphrase for describing US-China ties. The Obama administration had pointedly refused to embrace that formula, but Tillerson caused a stir when he quoted Chinese rhetoric echoing the framework during his visit to Beijing. China didn’t resurrect the mantra of “non-confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and always searching for win-win solutions” at the Xi-Trump meeting. Instead, Xi emphasized the importance of a “new starting point” for the relationship.

Despite the purposefully positive spin from both sides, there was no denying that the meeting had been overshadowed by US missile strikes on Syria, which Trump announced just after his dinner with Xi on Thursday evening.

Asked if the strikes would impact planned discussions between Trump and Xi, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, “I will not get ahead of their talks and predict how they are going to prioritize their topics, but I believe they will exchange views on bilateral relations, international and regional issues of common interest and what they think are important and urgent.”

US media, at least, was far more interested in the Syria story than the carefully-crafted summit; after brief comments to the press by Trump, reporters could be heard shouting out questions about the missile strikes before Xi was able to speak his piece.

What Do Asian Governments Think About the US Strike on Syria?

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