In the short term, the big question is whether Trump’s timing will encourage the Chinese to be more aggressive in pressuring North Korea to curb its nuclear program. “He just conducted the first ever US attack against Assad. I think he goes into [Friday’s] discussion with much greater credibility and leverage,” Paul Haenle, who advised both George W. Bush and Barack Obama on China, told the Guardian. If Trump is willing to attack Assad, the theory goes, what is he prepared to do to back up his threat that Pyongyang’s nuclear program “has to be stopped”? Ninety per cent of North Korean exports go to China, but it has resisted requests to cut off that market, for fear that economic pressure would destabilize the North Korean regime and cause a political and refugee crisis on China’s border.
In the medium and long term, China now has a larger concern: if the emerging Trump doctrine permits him to attack at will—even between the appetizer and dessert—putting some pressure on North Korea might be Beijing’s more desirable option. But it must now also prepare for four years of an American President whose strategy and doctrine can change from one week to the next. In the field of national security, unpredictability is usually the favored tactic of small powers, not large ones. “A superpower should want to convey reasonableness but implacability when your interests are crossed,” a Bush-era White House official told me. “Trump constantly emphasizes unpredictability. Well, unpredictability makes sense if you’re Kim Jong-un, because you’re so weak.”
In their meetings, Xi had been expected to offer Trump some symbolic red meat, to satisfy his campaign demands for better trade terms. Among the offerings discussed in advance were larger Chinese purchases of America’s liquid natural gas and agricultural exports, and, perhaps, a cut in China’s tariff on American automobiles. Beyond those good-will gestures, however, China did not expect to have to give up much more, in part because, after adopting a feverish anti-trade position during the campaign, Trump has recently moved toward traditional Republican positions more akin to those expressed by John Frisbie, the president of the U.S.-China Business Council, who warned, in an op-ed this week, that “the stakes are too high to play into protectionist fears.”