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Four surprises from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago meeting with Xi

Yves Tiberghien is director, Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, and a senior fellow at the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada

This week's Mar-a-Lago summit meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping of China has been heralded as the most significant bilateral summit in decades. The world paused to witness the mighty clash between the two most powerful men on Earth and the painful confrontation of the declining superpower with its rising challenger.

After two days of meetings, which included chief strategist Steve Bannon and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in front positions, what have we learned? What came of this clash? And what are the implications for Canada?

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It appears that the confrontation led to some progress. The two sides got to understand each other and they found a way to pull back from the brink. They developed an action plan and agreed on future milestones. This is remarkable, given how tense the situation was after the truly unprecedented level of anti-Chinese rhetoric expressed in the U.S. electoral campaign.

Canada can catch its breath. The announced U.S.-China clash has somewhat receded, providing more leeway for Canada with China and with the United States. The U.S attitude showed a degree of pragmatism, which may carry through to North American free-trade agreement re-negotiations. So far, Mr. Trump pushes to the limit but avoids crossing it.

Four key surprises stand out. First, the two days included a high level of positive decorum and positive signalling. The many smiling photos gave face to Xi Jinping in front of his home audience. The scene of Arabella Kushner, Mr. Trump's granddaughter singing the traditional Jasmine song and reciting a Tang dynasty poem to Mr. Xi went viral in China. The post-summit briefing emphasized good chemistry, friendship, and the promise of many meetings ahead.

Second, the unexpected Syrian crisis brought the leaders together. At the end of dinner, President Trump candidly briefed President Xi over the U.S. cruise missile attack over Syria. It is well known that China has stood with Russia in vetoing United Nations Security Council sanctions against Syria and has supported Russia and the Syrian regime. Yet, what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reported about the Xi-Trump conversation is truly remarkable:

"President Xi I think expressed an appreciation for the President letting him know and providing the rationale and said, as it was told to me, indicated that he understood that such a response is necessary when people are killing children."

In the same vein, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying bluntly said: "We are shocked at the latest chemical weapons attack in Syria and strongly condemn it." While also calling for "non-interference" and "restraint," she pointedly refused to condemn the U.S. strike. This stands in great contrast with the strident Russian condemnation and denial of facts on the chemical attack itself.

This Chinese nudge toward the U.S. President has surely built goodwill and shown a certain Chinese willingness to stand by the global taboo against chemical weapons.

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Third, on the thorny trade issue, the U.S. and China made unexpected progress, agreeing on a "hundred-day plan," that is focused on increasing U.S. exports rapidly and having an impact on the trade deficit. Implicit in Mr. Ross's remarks is the likely freeze of any unilateral actions against China during this 100-day period.

Secretary Ross appeared convinced that the Chinese shared the desire to reduce their trade surplus, because of the "impact it is having on money supply and inflation."

Fourth, the U.S. and China agreed to expand the Strategic Security and Economic Dialogue (the pillar of their relations under former U.S. president Barack Obama) from two to four pillars, adding a pillar on law enforcement and cybersecurity, and a fourth unexpected pillar on social and cultural issues.

With regards to North Korea, the two sides had long discussions and found no breakthrough. What filters from the briefings is that Mr. Trump took a measure of the complexity of the issues involved and constraints faced by China. The two sides resolved to share information and to co-operate in their next moves. China may have committed to increase its pressures on North Korea.

Human rights and South China Sea were discussed, but both sides seem to have stuck to their positions. The environment and climate change were not discussed.

In sum, this was a hard slog, but the two sides confronted their views and agreed on the next steps, pulling back from unilateral threats. In the end, the Syria surprise provided the cherry on top and Mr. Xi's subtle move may have earned some goodwill with Mr. Trump.

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