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When Xi met Trump: For China, mission accomplished

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping's two-day summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Florida, overshadowed by the U.S. attack on Syria, gave each president the chance to take measure of the other and, apparently, each liked what he saw. From the Chinese perspective, things went very well indeed, with China taking the initiative and the Americans going along.

It wasn't supposed to be like that. Mr. Trump had plans to pressure Mr. Xi to reduce the U.S. trade deficit. Mr. Trump also expected Mr. Xi to "step up" and help rein in North Korea. Neither happened.

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From the beginning, China felt it had the situation under control. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had shown a willingness to placate China by adopting its vocabulary – "no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win co-operation" – to describe the relationship. A major commentary published in the People's Daily on April 1 was headlined, "Xi Jinping's big diplomatic move draws global attention."

It discussed Mr. Xi's state visit to Finland, followed by his tête-à-tête in Palm Beach, Fla., with Mr. Trump. This, the official party paper indicated, was Mr. Xi's initiative. Indeed, the Mar-a-Lago meeting was a big diplomatic move by Mr. Xi. After months in which Mr. Trump, first as candidate, then as president-elect, and finally as President, castigated China for "raping" the United States, for "stealing" U.S. jobs and then announcing that he might depart from the "one China" policy adopted by the United States since the 1970s, China decided that it had to rein him in.

Beijing's first notable success was when Mr. Trump promised Mr. Xi over the phone that he would abide by the "one China" policy after all. Next, given the U.S. President's penchant for reversing himself, the Chinese pushed for an early summit, wanting to ensure they could lock in their gains. China's goal for the summit was simple: to ensure that the bilateral relationship, which had helped China become the world's second-largest economy in less than four decades, stayed on track.

Many speculated that China would offer concessions up front. Ely Ratner, of the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted that "Xi will show up with a bag of political goodies for Trump, expected to include pledges of big, 'tweetable' Chinese investments in the United States." Instead, the Chinese came empty-handed. As Mr. Trump said after the first day of talks, "We had a long discussion already. So far, I have gotten nothing. Absolutely nothing."

In the end, the two sides agreed on a "100-day plan" including "way stations of accomplishment." U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross hailed this as "the most significant thing," because trade discussions normally go on for years. The objective, Mr. Ross said, is to increase U.S. exports to China and reduce the U.S. trade deficit. So the can was kicked down the road, for now.

The Syrian attack could be seen as a message to China that the United States was capable of acting alone, including on North Korea. If so, it had no discernible impact. North Korea was discussed but there was no agreement. However, China, unlike Russia, did not condemn the U.S. missile strike.

The only concrete achievement of the summit was an agreement on a format for continued communications. The Obama administration in 2009 launched the ministerial-level annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Now, at Mr. Xi's suggestion, there will be a new framework, the Comprehensive Dialogue, overseen by the two presidents, consisting of four pillars: diplomacy and security; the economy; law enforcement and cybersecurity, and social and people-to-people exchanges. So the summit's one concrete deliverable was a Chinese proposal accepted by the United States. To China, the relationship with the United States is central, and Beijing needed to ensure its stable development given an unorthodox new U.S. administration. Of course, China's success in maintaining the relationship doesn't spell a U.S. defeat.

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Actually, U.S. hopes for China to solve the North Korean problem echo similar fond hopes Washington harboured 45 years ago when it wanted Beijing to use its influence with North Vietnam to end the war. China refused, even though there was no love lost between Beijing and Hanoi. Today, China again refuses to exercise its influence over another Communist neighbour, this time North Korea. This is because China puts its own interests above those of the United States, something that Mr. Trump, as an America Firster, surely should understand.

Now that it has Mr. Trump's attention, China wants to be sure that it keeps it, knowing his notoriously short attention span. That may well be why Mr. Xi invited Mr. Trump to visit China – certainly not an unusual invitation – but specified that it be within the next eight months. Mr. Trump accepted with pleasure and said he hoped to go soon.

Eds note: An earlier version incorrectly identified Mar-a-Lago's location as Palm Springs, Fla. It is located in Palm Beach, Fla.,

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