President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, sit as they pose for photographers before a meeting at Mar-a-Lago on April 6, 2017, in Palm Beach, Fla.

President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, sit as they pose for photographers before a meeting at Mar-a-Lago on April 6, 2017, in Palm Beach, Fla. AP / Alex Brandon

Trump Blew It at His China Summit

The U.S. president’s performance last week suggested to his Chinese counterpart that he is all talk, and can be pushed around with subtlety and patience. 

President Trump’s decision to launch a missile strike against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad diverted the world’s attention from the much-anticipated first summit meeting between Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping. But back at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump was giving President Xi exactly what Xi wanted – photo ops, smiles, and the red-carpet treatment – and getting little in return. If anything, the summit reaffirmed for the Chinese leader that his U.S. counterpart talks a big game, but backs down easily.

China has long been a target of Trump’s explosive rhetoric. On the campaign trail, he proffered a scapegoat for his message of American economic decline: “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country,” he said. In the runup to last week’s summit, he talked about how “difficult” his first meeting with Xi would be, even threatening unilateral action against North Korea if China wouldn’t help. 

But after the bluster and threats, Mr. Trump shied away from tough talk at Mar-a-Lago. In public, at least, he barely mentioned China's worrying actions on trade, North Korea, and in the South China Sea. Instead, he sounded conciliatory: “We have made tremendous progress in our relationship with China.” Muted notes of public concern were left to cabinet members after the meeting.

Public criticism is no substitute for a strategy, but carefully calibrated public pressure is essential to getting what the United States wants. China cares deeply about how it is perceived. At home, the Chinese government wants to show the American president treating China’s leader with nothing but respect. Abroad, Chinese diplomats want photos and boilerplate public comments to help undercut America’s position with its partners in Asia. Public criticism is a stick the United States must wield consistently and carefully; Mr. Trump didn't use it.

What he did was far worse than squander an opportunity to apply pressure. He reaffirmed the emerging Chinese perception of the American president as a paper tiger. Having created an opportunity to address concerns while standing next to China’s leader – never an easy task for American leaders and diplomats – Mr. Trump blinked. Twitter criticism is easy. Face-to-face diplomacy is hard. 

What did Mr. Trump get in return for his silence? The only things appear to be new processes for dialogue, ones that look a lot like President Obama’s approach. There’s a 100-day plan for trade talks, which U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross called an example of getting tough, but it’s hardly the stick Trump had promised. There are reports of some trade benefits that may already have been in train, exactly the kinds of tweetable deliverables that the U.S. president likes and can take credit for, but which don’t address the structural trade issues he has criticized.

If this was part of some strategic play that we can’t yet see, the diplomacy behind the gilded doors of Mar-a-Lago better have been first-rate. Were there actual threats leveled against China to get it to shift gears on trade or North Korea, and are those threats backed up by strategy and action? Did Trump push back when Xi, inevitably, told the United States to not interfere in issues like Taiwan and maritime?

Some have speculated that Mr. Trump’s decision to attack Syria sent a useful message to Xi about American willingness to use force against North Korea. But these theories are misplaced – there are no good limited military options with North Korea because of its retaliatory capabilities against South Korea, and Xi knows it. Likely more effective was the deployment of a carrier group to northeast Asia a few days later, a normal show of force by the United States to support allies and deter Pyongyang.

One can hope that the summit achieved moderate goals. There were, at least, no major blow-ups that would set the relationship on a downward spiral, à la Trump's interactions with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. As well, Trump followed up the summit with a series of tweets calling on China to do more about North Korea, and spoke by phone to Xi about the issue.

But the main takeaway for now is that Trump further damaged his own credibility. The U.S. president had already gotten off on the wrong foot by threatening to undermine the One China policy (and with it potentially the entire U.S.-China relationship) but then backing down; and withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump's performance last week likely reinforced for Xi that the U.S. president is all talk, and can be pushed around with subtlety and patience — two attributes Trump doesn't possess.