Trump-Xi summit overshadowed by US strike on Syria

Trump & Xi's North Korea problem
Trump & Xi's North Korea problem

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Story highlights

  • Trump and Xi are holding their first summit
  • It could be overshadowed by military action in Syria
  • China says Syrian issue should be resolved through peaceful means

Hong Kong (CNN)As US Tomahawk missiles pounded an airbase in Syria, President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping sat down for dinner at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.

The two leaders were meeting for the first time, but what should have been a prime opportunity to forge a personal connection and recalibrate the world's most important bilateral relationship has been overshadowed by the biggest military action of Trump's presidency.
Trump made the decision to strike an airfield Syrian aircraft used to launch a chemical attack shortly before his dinner with Xi. The Chinese delegation left before 9 p.m. Shortly after that, Trump addressed reporters and explained why he'd ordered the attack.
    Trump and Xi are scheduled to sit down together again Friday for a working lunch before Xi departs midday.
    But, now, with the focus on the conflict in Syria, the potential gains from the summit are in jeopardy. The two were expected to discuss North Korea and its aggressive pursuit of nuclear technology and missile expertise.
    China condemned the use of chemical weapons in any form and said the country is opposed to the use of force in international affairs.
    "We always hold that the Syrian issue should be resolved through political means," Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
    US President Donald Trump (center) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (left next to Trump) look on during dinner at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida on April 6.

    Bargaining position

    Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, said the big issue was whether the Syria strike would affect China's bargaining position on North Korea.
    President Trump went into the meeting saying Beijing needs to do more to rein in Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, which have been accelerating.
    Hours before the two presidents met, Trump predicted aboard Air Force One that "China will be stepping up" to help stop North Korea's nuclear program.
    The concern for the Chinese, Zhang said, is that Trump just gave the world proof he's not afraid to take military action unilaterally.
    "This strike may ironically strengthen Trump's bargaining position," Zhang said. "The decision to launch a strike may not be linked to the summit per se, but the outcome -- this development -- may strengthen (his position), because many Chinese strategic thinkers, they do think the United States is considering a preemptive option on North Korea."
    Global Times, a provocative but state-run Chinese tabloid that often takes hard-line stances, ran an editorial saying Trump was "flexing his muscle" with the action in Syria.
    "This is his first major decision on international affairs, and his haste and inconsistency has left people with a deep impression," the Global Times said.
    "He wanted to prove that he dares to do what Obama did not dare. While Obama was equivocal, his attitude is clear-cut. He also proves to the world that he isn't merely a 'businessman president.' He will mobilize US military force without any hesitation when necessary," it added.
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    Syria hogs limelight

    China has backed Russia, which denounced the strikes, and vetoed resolutions against Syria at the United Nations Security Council.
    But Willy Lam, a professor at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Beijing wasn't a major player and the conflict hadn't been expected to top the agenda during discussions between Xi and Trump.
    The Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Embassy in the US likely would have pushed to make a big deal of Xi's visit, Lam says, but would have been aware of the situation in Syria, he added.
    "The Chinese of course would insist on being the given the limelight, because this is Xi Jinping's first visit (to see Trump)," said Lam. "But at the same time, they are on US soil, so there is only so much they can do."
    The news of the US strike on Syria appeared to be downplayed in Chinese news coverage, which led with the summit. State broadcaster CCTV put news of the airstrikes fifth in its midday news rundown.
    "The meeting will be of great significance to charting China-US relationship in a new era, advancing the development of bilateral ties in a healthy and stable way from a new starting point, and promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and the world at large," Xinhua, China's state news agency, quoted Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang as saying.

    'Very difficult'

    Trump and China: What's at stake?
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    The meeting was conceived as a much-needed opportunity for two of the world's most powerful men to build a rapport, establish some mutual trust and show their respective domestic audiences that they are learning how to work with the other.
    Trump had used China as a punching bag on the campaign trail -- accusing it of "raping" the US economy and stealing millions of American jobs but Trump has not followed through on campaign promises to label China a "currency manipulator" on day one of his presidency or to impose steep tariffs on all Chinese imports.
    Before the meeting Trump, had said he'd expected a "very difficult" summit, with jobs and trade to dominate discussions along with regional security issues like North Korea.
    Xinhua said Friday that during their meeting Trump had accepted an invitation to visit China.