The recent international political event that most quickly faded from global attention, if it at any time managed to arouse it, was the first meeting of the presidents of China and the United States two weeks ago. At the time, I examined the immediate setting for the meeting. Later I imagined that it would be eclipsed by an act of war that Trump would decide to call and execute at the same time as Xi’s arrival. A unilateral, unipersonal act of war, decided in haste, without consultation beyond an intimate circle of advisers, without calculating consequences or repercussions, and with a total absence of any follow-up or exit strategy.
It was important to take advantage of the general wave of repudiation surrounding Bashar Assad’s crime, being neither the first nor the last person to take a position clearly different from the Obama administration’s behavior in the face of similar situations; to act by using executive powers that marginalize Congress; to alert Russian forces active on the ground to avoid undesirable collateral casualties; and to use unmanned aerial destructive power with no crews as the least risky option.
It was not important, on the other hand, to ensure the effectiveness of the action – the facilities attacked were used the next day – or to forget the coordination with allied nations. They would be obliged to support the attack, if only tacitly. The allies and other countries expressed support or remained silent in the face of the unilateral action because they feared that to censure it, as they could under international law, would be interpreted as supporting the Assad regime.
The United States, according to a celebrated CNN commentator, demonstrated that it now has a president and showed the world a possible pattern into which American action will fall when it comes to the international arena: impromptu and unleashed by a visceral reaction. Trump recounted the fait accompli to Xi during Thursday’s dinner at Mar-a-Lago. He must have been pleased with the idea that his guest also might have learned a lesson.
The immediate readouts of what happened during the Mar-a-Lago talks were corrected, in substantial respects, days later by new statements from Trump. After the action in Syria and the abrupt deterioration of the U.S. relationship with Russia, the president, shamelessly, began to turn left and right: Before his allies, he declared that NATO was no longer obsolete. Before its rivals, he declared that China, in fact, did not manipulate the exchange rate. He did not say that he would participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but hinted that he would use the gains made in his negotiations – already deemed a disaster – by renegotiating other trade agreements, such as NAFTA. He dressed up these changes with praise for his dinner guest and his charming wife, whom he might well have poisoned, as it is known that Mar-a-Lago is subject to sanitary inspection due to hygienic deficiencies in the handling and preparation of food.
It fell to the White House press secretary, the ineffable Sean Spicer, to offer the official version of what happened on a visit that “provided a great opportunity for presidents and their wives to get to know each other, share food, and work on important issues,”* stating that part of this opportunity was for them to develop a relationship and start the discussion on some key issues. He barely mentioned the areas of discussion between Trump and Xi, and hinted that there had been differences of opinion in all of them that they would seek to address with a mutually respectful approach. This was the polite but imprecise formula, insisted on by Xi, raised in his first interview with Obama at Sunnylands four years ago, that calls for China and the United States to establish a relationship between great powers.
On the other hand, it seems that Trump has difficulty understanding the notion of mutual respect for any kind of relationship, from international to interpersonal.
As Spicer also stated, China’s industrial, agricultural, technological and cyber policies have serious impacts on U.S. jobs and exports, making it imperative that China take concrete steps to level the playing field in favor of U.S. workers, especially in access to markets. To determine the course of action in this matter, it was agreed to hold meetings in the next 100 days within a renewed institutional framework (which was actually established during Obama’s term using different terminology). China seems to believe that an immediate increase in its importing products from the U.S., which would allow Trump to signal that he has managed to reduce the trade deficit, is a reasonable price to pay to avoid the otherwise unfolding trade war.
Little has been learned about possible new approaches to other aspects of an increasingly complex economic and financial relationship. The field of cybersecurity, which was discussed intensively and unsuccessfully in Sunnyland four years ago, now appears to be one of the most promising opportunities for bilateral cooperation between interested governments, for various reasons and with different approaches, in limiting unrestricted and equal access to the internet and other information and communication technology. It is also unclear to what extent and in what detail the situation of the various border conflicts in the South China Sea were discussed beyond the reaffirmation of the basic principles of freedom of navigation.
One might think that, given the new situation and the increased uncertainties, there is a kind of entente that freezes the border disputes and extends the status quo for the rest of this decade and much of what follows.
As everyone expected, the DPRK (North Korea) was the most relevant dispute. After the fact, days after the visit ended, Trump told the media that Xi could expect more flexibility in trade talks with the United States as long as it was more instrumental in ending North Korea’s nuclear projects. The link between the two issues is entirely artificial.
Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence frowns and calls for an end to a period of strategic patience, a period which he does not know the beginning of. Trump orders the mobilization of combat forces, which sail in the wrong direction, and plays with the threat of unilateral action against North Korean nuclear facilities. This option is flatly rejected by all countries directly concerned, starting with the Republic of Korea and Japan, the U.S. allies in the area.
The difficult but irreplaceable course of a long-term negotiation for the denuclearization of the peninsula does not correspond to Trump’s diplomatic style. Kim Jong Un is tempted to carry out a new ballistic test, to commemorate his grandfather’s 105th anniversary, a plan that proves unsuccessful. However, he may offer Trump the pretext for a second military action.
*Editor’s note: This comment was actually made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.