Beijing has reason to be pleased with how the Trump-Xi meet went

By Frank Ching

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s two-day summit meeting with Donald Trump, overshadowed by the U.S. attack on Syria, gave each president the chance to take the measure of the other and, apparently, each liked what he saw. From the Chinese perspective, things went very well indeed, with China taking the initiative and the Americans going along.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that. Trump had plans to pressure Xi to reduce the U.S. trade deficit. Trump also expected Xi to “step up” and help rein in North Korea. Neither thing happened.

From the beginning, China felt it had the situation under control. Rex Tillerson had shown willingness to placate China by adopting its vocabulary — “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” — to describe the relationship. A major commentary published in the People’s Daily April 1, was headlined “Xi Jinping’s big diplomatic move draws global attention.” It discussed Xi’s state visit to Finland, followed by his tete-a-tete in Palm Springs with Donald Trump. This, the official party paper indicated, was Xi’s initiative.

Indeed, the Mar-a-Lago meeting was a big diplomatic move by Xi. After months in which Trump, first as candidate, then as president-elect, and finally as president, castigated China for “raping” the U.S., for “stealing” American jobs and then announcing that he might depart from the “One China” policy adopted by the U.S. since the 1970s, China decided that it had to rein him in.

Beijing’s first notable success was when Trump promised Xi over the phone that he would abide by the “One China” policy after all.

Next, given Trump’s penchant for reversing himself, the Chinese pushed for an early summit, wanting to ensure they could lock in their gains. China’s goal for the summit was simple: to ensure that the bilateral relationship, which had helped China become the world’s second largest economy in less than four decades, stayed on track. Many speculated that China would offer concessions up front. Ely Ratner, of the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted: “Xi will show up with a bag of political goodies for Trump, expected to include pledges of big, ‘tweetable’ Chinese investments in the United States.” Instead, the Chinese came empty handed. As Trump said after the first day of talks, “We had a long discussion already. So far, I have gotten nothing. Absolutely nothing.”