In his inimitable way, US President Donald Trump promised major things with the Chinese president’s visit to Trump's residence in Florida, Mar-a-Lago. In the end, this particular informal summit, if it is remembered at all, will be because of the intervention Trump ordered, almost minutes before he sat down with Xi, for Tomahawk missiles to rain down on an installation in Syria associated with production of chemical weapons that had been deployed a few days earlier.
Trump was probably speaking from the heart when he said he had ordered the Syrian attack because of the nauseating sight of a government poisoning its own people. Syrian president Assad’s ability to plumb the depths of depravity continues.
For Chinese analysts, and others, however, there was an eerie symmetry between this event and the threats Trump had made only days before about making unilateral strikes against China’s truculent neighbour, North Korea. In foreign affairs, symbolism is often all too evident. The assumption is that in such a deliberative and high-risk field nothing is left to accident or chance. The possibility of a link between striking Syria and sending a message that Trump means business on North Korea can’t be discounted. And the Chinese, like everyone else, know they are dealing with an American leader who delights in proclaiming his unpredictability. Nor can the Chinese complain too much: they just have to remember the similarly extraordinary co-incidence of Xi Jinping visiting India in 2014 at almost exactly the same time his army decided to undertake a quick foray across the contested Sino-Indian border. Those that like sending subliminal messages shouldn’t be surprised when similar messages are sent to them.
Did the summit achieve anything, despite this dramatic context? There were no major announcements on big economic and trade issues, despite the initial excitement. For the blue collar workers who voted for Trump to bring back jobs and increase their wealth levels, there was no crisp, clear outcome from the summit that might have reassured them. That’s probably because at the end of the day, there is very little that either leader can do to really achieve this. It will be the work of American and Chinese companies and the myriad other economic agents to start to deal with the imbalances. And any progress there in terms of trade and investment flows will be incremental, and probably unaffected by politicians posturing.
Even the announcement that the US-China strategic security and economic dialogue will be elevated to presidential level was no more than a superficial change. There will be no fundamental change in the nature, scope and convening of the dialogue. All that continues as before. Chairs have just been rearranged – that’s all.
The main achievement of the summit was simply that things didn’t go wrong. Xi and Trump shook hands for a perfectly reasonable six seconds. This must have been the subject of intense preparatory discussion. A 19-second epic along the lines that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got would have looked ridiculous and been the immediate subject of satirical internet memes. No contact in public at all like that with German Chancellor Angela Merkel would have been a major affront to face-loving Chinese protocol. In the era of Trump, it is truly a relief when small things like this go right.