Syria Move an Irritant, Potential Opportunity for Xi With Trump

  • Missile strike changes atmospherics around talks in Florida
  • China analysts see chance for Xi as Trump distracted by Syria

Shortly after dessert on Thursday night, the atmospherics around U.S. President Donald Trump’s first summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping suddenly changed.

In the run up to the meeting, Trump had warned of a “difficult” conversation over trade and North Korea with an adversary he routinely blasted on the campaign trail. China took a different tone, saying it presented an opportunity for a fresh start between the world’s biggest economies.

Both sides are recalibrating after Trump ordered a missile strike on Syria to punish Bashar al-Assad’s regime for a chemical weapons attack. The news put China in an awkward position over what it says about the strikes, and could take the gloss off Xi’s big moment with Trump.

The episode evokes memories of Xi’s trip to the U.S. in late 2015 where he was overshadowed by an overlapping visit by Pope Francis and his stilted manner drew unfavorable comparisons to another leader in town at the time, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Still, some China analysts say it may present the chance to strike favorable deals with a U.S. leader preoccupied by a crisis.

“While Xi would not approve of this, he probably welcomed it as well, as this caused serious distraction on the part of the Trump team, and Assad has taken on the role of the bad guy that Trump is beating,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. “My bet is that he would choose to handle this very diplomatically and use this to make a grand bargain with Trump.”

‘Cool Down’

China’s foreign ministry took a cautious line on the strikes, urging both the U.S. and Syria to “cool down.” It condemned the use of chemical weapons and called for an investigation, while also recognizing Assad as a legitimate elected leader.

“We call on all the parties to stick to the political settlement and not move away from it,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

China’s official media gave limited coverage to the Syrian news while prominently hailing the first day of Xi’s talks with Trump as a success. None of the Chinese stories on the missile strike mentioned Xi.

“You cannot see any remotely negative information that’d cast Xi Jinping in a bad light for his U.S. trip,” said Qiao Mu, a professor of media studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Heading into the talks, Xi’s government looked to stave off a trade war with Trump and find some way to avoid a clash over North Korea, another international pariah that the billionaire has targeted. Trump had bashed China repeatedly for stealing American manufacturing jobs and failing to do more to stop Kim Jong Un’s regime.

Read more: Trump Hails ‘Friendship’ With Xi Before Syria Attack

The first day featured photo opportunities, handshakes and laughter between the leaders. A photo making the rounds on Chinese social media showed Trump introducing his grandchildren to Xi and his wife.

“We had a long discussion already and so far I have gotten nothing, absolutely nothing,” Trump joked on Thursday night. “But we have developed a friendship. I can see that.”

Trump accepted Xi’s invitation to visit China, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Xi told Trump there were “a thousand reasons” to make the China-U.S. relationship work, with “no reason to break it.”

The talks Friday are likely to be more substantive, with the pair holding a series of working sessions. There may also be a stroll around the grounds of the beach-side resort, said administration officials who briefed reporters Tuesday on condition of anonymity.

‘Wasted’ Gifts

Still, the Syrian move may have spurred some last-minute tweaking to the approach for Friday’s talks. The missile strike showed that Trump is willing to change positions fast, according to Shi Yinhong, a foreign affairs adviser to China’s cabinet and director of the ‘Center on American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing.

“I don’t have a list of what kind of sweeteners President Xi brought to him, but it’d not be worth our while to give him too much,” Shi said. “Too many gifts would be wasted on Trump.”

Xi is seeking to portray strength and maintain stability in a year that will see key Communist Party leaders replaced at a time economic growth slows the most in decades. That adds incentives for Xi to strike a deal with Trump, perhaps offering to do more on North Korea in return for him backing off threats to slap on tariffs or label China a currency manipulator, according to Tsang from the SOAS China Institute.

“Xi’s first and foremost concern is to show that he is managing Trump in the run up to the 19th Party Congress,” Tsang said, referring to the Communist Party gathering toward the end of the year. “This is likely to be what will drive his policy towards the Trump administration."

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