April 9, 2017 10:00 am JST

Tang poems and folk tales: History’s role in the Trump-Xi reset

The Syria airstrike and other moments that made for a rocky summit start

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

China's first lady, Peng Liyuan, left, applauds as President Xi Jinping shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump at the start of a summit at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on April 6. © Reuters

PALM BEACH, U.S. -- The primary goal of Chinese President Xi Jinping in the first face-to-face meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, was to seek a new beginning for his "major powers" initiative. But he got off to a rather rocky start; the summit was overshadowed by a series of unexpected events.

On Thursday night, Xi and his wife arrived at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in an already summery Florida, where daytime temperatures reach 30 C. During the dinner, the couple enjoyed listening to Trump's granddaughters singing Chinese folk songs and reciting poems from China's Tang dynasty.

As they were enjoying the entertainment, U.S. forces were bombing Syria. It was only toward the end of dinner that Trump told Xi about the operation.

Xi must have felt quite awkward. He might have felt completely taken in by Trump. Xi was right next to the commander in chief who had just ordered a bombing campaign in a politically sensitive region of the world, happily smiling and talking without knowing anything about the assault.

The timing of the missile attack was carefully calibrated. Just before meeting with Xi, Trump suggested the U.S. might engage in unilateral military action against North Korea, which had launched a ballistic missile days before the U.S.-China summit. The bombing of Syria -- and the campaign's timing -- was apparently intended to pressure China, which is reluctant to cooperate with the U.S. in dissuading Pyongyang from pursuing missile and nuclear weapons programs.

Many in China's online community reacted by likening Trump's ill-treatment of Xi at the dinner to the "Feast at Hong Gate" -- a famous folk story about a failed assassination attempt in ancient China. In the story, Liu Bang, a warlord who would go on to become the first emperor of the Han dynasty, gets invited to a feast by rival Xiang Yu. During the banquet, an assassin performs a sword dance in a furtive attempt to kill Liu Bang, who manages to escape.

But going to Mar-a-Lago in the first place was a risky bet. For China, which places great importance on maintaining its dignity as a state, visiting an American president who has been in office only 76 days is quite unusual.

There were reasons for the rush.

First, the economy. Ever since China joined the World Trade Organization 16 years ago, its economy has been growing, riding the U.S.-led wave of globalization. But growth has slowed, and if Trump's protectionist stance is to be directed at China, the world's most populous country would be stripped of a means to earn foreign currency. In other words, China's global strategy could be imperiled. For Xi, improving ties with the U.S. is by far his most urgent task.

Second is China's domestic politics. Members of the Chinese Communist Party are already battling ahead of a leadership reshuffle this fall at the national congress. Party rules might even be amended to allow Xi, who has been conferred the special "core" status, to continue as leader.

In Beijing, those involved in writing diplomatic policies for the current government are often interrupted by calls to attend study group sessions where party members learn the "philosophy" of Xi Jinping.

While Xi was away in the U.S., a high-ranking official was arrested as part of Xi's anti-corruption efforts. China's U.S. diplomacy is an extension of its domestic politics. Xi appears to have wanted to leverage the outcome of the summit for the party congress this fall.

Back in June 2013, when Xi first met with Barack Obama, Trump's predecessor, in California, he said China and the U.S. will "work to build a new model of major country relationship." The message sounded like a suggestion for a "G-2" world in which two great nations -- the U.S. and China -- would dictate the global order.

Sensing a dangerous intent, the Obama administration stopped referring to the "new model" and never again mentioned it. Now Trump is in the White House, at least while he's not at Mar-a-Lago, and Xi quickly moved to resuscitate the buried idea of "major-power relations."

When U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited China last month, he described the bilateral relationship as "nonconflict" and "nonconfrontation[al]." These are words Beijing used to describe the "new model of major country relationship." It appeared, albeit for a moment, that the Trump administration might make concessions to China.

At Mar-a-Lago, however, Trump did not repeat Tillerson's descriptions, and no new keywords on U.S.-China relations were presented after the two-day summit. Afterward, there was no joint statement, and China did not hold a press conference. These are indications that the summit was rife with serious confrontations.

The summit -- held while the U.S. was using dozens of cruise missiles to bomb an airfield in Syria -- was indeed as highly tense as the ancient Chinese feast.

One thing the two leaders have in common is their political slogans: Xi calls for "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," while Trump keeps saying he wants to "make America great again." But the "great powers" whose leaders wield these mantras could end up clashing, perhaps over bilateral trade.

That new beginning will have to wait.

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