When U.S. President Donald Trump and China President Xi Jinping met in person for the first time earlier this month, experts on U.S.-China relations expected discussions surrounding trade, China’s control over Taiwan, and North Korea’s defiant nuclear weapons tests to dominate the leaders’ agenda. The first day of Xi’s visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago mansion in Florida took an unexpected turn, however, when the United States fired cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in response to a poison gas attack that killed dozens in northwest Syria.
Following Trump’s meeting with Xi on April 6–7, Fordham Law School’s communications department spoke with Fordham Law Professor Carl Minzner, an expert on Chinese law and governance, for insight on the meeting’s significance for Xi, whether China gained what it had hoped from the meeting, and how Chinese leadership viewed the Syria bombing.
In the American media, it seems Xi’s visit was overshadowed by Trump’s decision to bomb Syria. What is the Chinese state media saying about the visit?
It’s the reverse. China’s state media has focused little on the Syria strike, instead presenting the meeting as setting the framework for a positive, non-confrontational relationship between the United States and China, notwithstanding some of Trump’s earlier comments about China.
What did China/Xi hope to gain from the meeting? Did the meeting bring them closer to their goals? Did they get a better reading on Trump himself from the two days in Florida?
For Xi, the primary importance of the meeting lay not in the content, but simply in the fact that it took place. Domestically, Xi faces an important Party Congress meeting that is coming up this fall. There, he hopes to see his political position yet further confirmed through the appointment of Party cadres politically beholden to him to the Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee. Going into the meeting with Trump, the fear on the Chinese side was that either something would happen that might make Xi look weak, or that an unpredictable Trump might unexpectedly plunge the two countries into conflict over trade or Taiwan. For Xi, the fact that neither happened means the meeting was a success.
What do you make of Xi’s decision to meet Trump at Mar-a-Lago as opposed to the White House?
Senior administration officials have noted that Xi really was interested in a meeting at the White House, precisely because of the symbolism involved (see above). It was apparently the Trump administration that pushed Mar-a-Lago, and managed to sell it to the Chinese side.
What do you make of Trump firing missiles during a meeting with the world’s other superpower? How might this be interpreted by Xi?
It is certainly a clear reminder of Trump’s unpredictability. For Xi, it’s worrisome because it definitely raises the possibility (and is likely intended to do so) that the Trump administration might use military force against North Korea. China has no interest in seeing the United States come to blows with a nuclear-armed North Korea—particularly right on its borders. On the other hand, if the Syria strike suggests that the United States will be enmeshed in (and distracted by) Mideast politics for yet another four years—that’s not entirely unwelcome to Beijing.
Did the meeting establish any collective approach to dealing with North Korea, particularly in light of that country firing ballistics weapons on the eve of the Trump-Xi meeting?
It’s unclear. We don’t have a good readout on what the two sides agreed to on North Korea issues. Today, there are news reports that China has turned back coal shipments from North Korea. North Korea’s exports of raw materials are one of the economic levers that China has over North Korea, and they are beginning to use them. However, this isn’t solely the result of the meeting with Trump. China views North Korea as a loose cannon, and frustrations have been building for some time—Beijing announced back in February that they would be cutting off coal imports for the rest of the year.