China took a very different message from Donald Trump’s Syria Attack

China took a very different message from Donald Trump’s Syria Attack

A theme echoing through US media in the last few days was that Donald Trump’s decision to attack Syria during dinner with China’s president was sending a message to Beijing. But what was the message?

It was an obvious act of intimidation, a threat, according to the consensus American interpretation. America is powerful. America is dangerous. America will use force, so watch out.

But the Chinese will interpret it very differently. To Beijing, it is not a threat but a reassurance.

Once again, America is preoccupied with the Middle East. Once again, a US president squares up to confront China but is distracted by the Middle East. Once again, China can make great strategic inroads without serious US resistance.

China took a very different message from Donald Trump

At his first face to face meetings with Trump last week, Xi Jinping gave the US president nothing. Not the least concession on even the smallest issue.

Remarkably, Trump said it himself. After their first round of talks before dinner on Thursday night, the American leader told reporters: “We had a long discussion already. So far I have gotten nothing. Absolutely nothing. But we have developed a great friendship.

If Trump thought that his overnight pyrotechnics display in Syria would change Xi’s attitude, he was mistaken. Xi merely ignored a year of angry Trump bluster and threats against China.

Point for point on Trump’s grievance list: Xi made no concession on trade, no concession on China’s allegedly undervalued currency, no concession on North Korea, no concession on Taiwan, no concession on the South China Sea.

At the end of the two-day summit, reporters pressed Trump’s Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, on whether Xi had promised to make some infrastructure investments in the US, at least. The American side had been expecting such a “gift”.

“The best gift was [Xi’s] presence,” Ross replied. The Chinese agreed to a “100-day plan” to address the trade imbalance, the Americans said, but with no specified goals or outcomes.

The Obama-era dialogue initiative between the two powers was terminated and a replaced with a similar one with a different name. That was about it.

Not only were China’s alleged past transgressions forgotten, a fresh provocation was overlooked. On Thursday, the day the two leaders sat down for their first meeting, a US think tank reported that a Chinese air force jet had been photographed on one of the islands of the South China Sea.

A satellite photographed a Chinese J-11 fighter on Woody Island in the Paracel Island group. “This isn’t a first, but it’s the first time in a year,” said Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Only one jet was visible on the Chinese-built runway. “There are likely more in the hangars nearby”, he said.” It was photographed on March 29. Its significance?

This is one of the islands that Xi promised, in a press conference with Barack Obama, would not be militarised. Now it has an airstrip, radars, and reinforced concrete hangars big enough for the biggest bombers in the Chinese air force. And the air force evidently is making use of it.

The Trump administration’s reaction? The revelation went unremarked. It received very little media coverage. Nor was the administration pressed by reporters to comment.