US President Donald Trump ordered the missile strike on Syria’s Sharyat air base whilst he was actually hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping at his holiday home in Florida.
This fact would have put the Chinese in a difficult position, with the choice being whether to criticise the strike immediately, putting their President in the embarrassing position of appearing to quarrel with his host and of risking the collapse of the entire summit, or of waiting for Xi Jinping’s return to Beijing. Wisely the Chinese settled on the second course.
China has come in for some criticism for its failure to speak out strongly against the missile strike immediately after it took place. However it is difficult to see what from a Chinese point of view doing so would have achieved.
Critics of China’s reticent stance on Syria need to remember that Syria is not of fundamental importance to China as it is to Russia. Just as the Russians are relatively reticent on issues which are of fundamental importance to China but which are of less concern to Russia – such Tibet, Taiwan, North Korea and the South China Sea – so the Chinese tend to be relatively reticent about issues which are of fundamental importance to Russia – such as Syria, Ukraine or NATO expansion – but which are of less concern to China.
That does not however change the fact that the Russians and the Chinese diplomatically and politically support each other on all these issues, especially in the diplomatic jousts which now regularly taken place in the UN Security Council.
In the event, as soon as Xi Jinping returned to Beijing the Chinese leadership made its strong disagreement with the US missile strike immediately clear in a way which was – somewhat unusually – picked up even by the New York Times in this article. On the question of the missile strike here is what it says:
“With President Xi Jinping safely out of the United States and no longer President Trump’s guest, China’s state-run media on Saturday was free to denounce the missile strike on Syria, which the American president told Mr. Xi about while they were finishing dinner.
Xinhua, the state news agency, on Saturday called the strike the act of a weakened politician who needed to flex his muscles. In an analysis, Xinhua also said Mr. Trump had ordered the strike to distance himself from Syria’s backers in Moscow, to overcome accusations that he was “pro-Russia.”
That unflattering assessment reflected China’s official opposition to military interventions in the affairs of other countries. But it was also a criticism of Mr. Trump himself, who Mr. Xi had hoped was a man China could deal with…..[Xinhua] mentioned American missile attacks on Libya in 1986 and Sudan in 1998, and scolded the United States for not achieving its “political goals” in those instances.
“It has been a typical tactic of the U.S. to send a strong political message by attacking other countries using advanced warplanes and cruise missiles,” the article said…..
Chinese analysts, whose advice is sometimes sought by the government on foreign policy questions, were scornful of the strike, which they viewed as a powerful country attacking a nation unable to fight back.”
The New York Times also mentioned this profoundly cynical but also realistic and typically Chinese comment made by Chinese analyst Shen Dingli
Mr. Shen [said] that many Chinese were “thrilled” by the attack because it would probably result in the United States becoming further mired in the Middle East.
“If the United States gets trapped in Syria, how can Trump make America great again? As a result, China will be able to achieve its peaceful rise,” Mr. Shen said, using a term Beijing employs to characterize its growing power. “Even though we say we oppose the bombing, deep in our hearts we are happy.”
This assessment may be cynical, but it touches on a profound truth. On any objective assessment by far the greatest challenge the US faces as it tries to preserve its global position comes from China. Yet instead of responding to this challenge the US has frittered away the last 16 years picking fights with countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria and of course Russia. In the meantime China has quietly continued becoming more powerful whilst attaching Russia with its boundless resources ever more closely to itself. Were the Trump administration to involve the US in the war in Syria it would merely reinforce this dynamic, whilst giving China even more time and space to grow even stronger. No wonder some Chinese are “thrilled” at the prospect.
The New York Times also grasped something else: in terms of concrete results the US-China summit was a failure, with the Chinese making no concessions to the US, and the US securing none of the trade deals President Trump had hoped for
On trade, Mr. Xi and Mr. Trump agreed to a “100-day plan” that Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross said would include “way stations of accomplishment.” American business executives took that to mean there had been no deep negotiations on whether China would further open its markets to American companies.
Business leaders had expected the Chinese to announce investments in the United States that would create jobs, as a way to offset some of Mr. Trump’s complaints about the country’s trade imbalance. But Mr. Xi made no such offers, at least publicly. According to an account in Xinhua, the Chinese invited the United States to participate in a program it calls One Belt One Road, an ambitious effort to build infrastructure projects across Asia to Europe, for which China hopes it can attract some American investment.
President Trump came to the White House selling himself as a dealmaker. His idea – taken straight from the cut-and-threat commercial world he has up to now lived in – seems to be to ‘soften up’ his potential adversary by threats and bluster in order to wring concessions from him as he aims for ‘the deal’ which is most advantageous to the US.
That approach may work in the commercial world. As the Chinese have just shown him, and as the Russians are in the process of showing him, the world of international diplomacy doesn’t work that way.