Prior to arriving in Mar-a-Lago for his first visit with President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping surely nursed hopes that his trip would be a public relations success, helping to enhance China’s global standing.
On that score, his timing could not have been worse.
Trump’s decision to strike Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles – coming as Xi and Trump were eating spoonfuls of sorbet on Thursday night – quickly dominated the 24-hour news cycle. While Chinese leaders hoped Xi would bask in the warm glow of an international spotlight, he was quickly upstaged, with the new U.S. president, Syria and Russia commanding all the attention.
It’s not known how Xi responded when Trump informed him of the missile strike, which occurred as they were finishing dinner, at about 8:40 p.m., according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Afterward, Xi and other Chinese leaders seemed hesitant to respond to the missile strike, a military intervention they would usually oppose – China repeatedly has used its veto power to block U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria, including a 2016 plan for a cease-fire in Aleppo and proposed sanctions on the use of chemical weapons.
But at a briefing in Beijing on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying offered only a muted comment. “What is imperative now is to prevent further deterioration of the situation,” she said.
Bill Bishop, a Sinologist who tracks China’s state media and political machinations, said it was possible that China would have a more forceful response once Xi had returned from his trip, but not now. “The propaganda apparatus is going to be cautious about being too critical about U.S. actions while Xi is in America,” said Bishop, who writes the influential Sinocism blog.
Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, is an extensive world traveler, using his trips to build alliances and enhance China’s standing. Yet this is the second straight U.S. junket where he’s been forced to play second fiddle.
In September 2015, the Chinese president’s trip to the United States coincided with the first visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. The day before Xi arrived in Washington for talks with President Barack Obama, the pope addressed Congress, an honor not afforded to the president of the world’s most populous country.
If Xi was miffed to be upstaged again, he did not show it Friday, prior to his departure.
“President Trump made excellent preparations for our country's representatives and gave us a warm reception,” Xi said Friday, according to a translation provided by the French news agency Agence France-Presse. “We recently have had in-depth and lengthy communications to this end and arrived at many common understandings, the most important being deepening our friendship and building a kind of trust in keeping with the Sino-U.S. working relationship and friendship.”
Trump also lauded his interactions with Xi, saying the talks had been “tremendous.” Back in China, state media posted upbeat photos and video of Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, dining with Trump and his wife, Melania, at Mar-a-Lago.
The two sides made no announcement of major agreements, though Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told reporters the leaders had agreed on a 100-day action plan on trade policies, with “way stations of accomplishment” along the way. Trump also accepted Xi’s invitation to make a state visit to China later this year.
Despite the intervention of the Syrian missile strikes, Xi got what he wanted from the trip, analysts said.
“Private conversations are very important to the Chinese,” said Jonathan D. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They want to make sure they can get someone on the phone who has direct channels of communication to the president, and they have that with his son-in-law,” Jared Kushner.