The first face-to-face encounter between the American President and his Chinese counterpart was expected to follow a predictable arc—the plutocrat and the Communist, the blowhard and the sphinx, the weary protectionist and the reluctant globalist. But, just after eight o’clock on Thursday, as the two leaders were polishing off their New York strip and Dover sole, Trump informed Xi that he’d launched cruise missiles against Syrian armed forces. The strike was a response to the Syrian government’s use of sarin gas against civilians, and it drew applause from some in both the Democratic and Republican parties. It also reinjected American interests and treasure into a strategic swamp that has bedevilled Trump’s predecessors. Trump always promised to behave this way—“We’re so predictable. We’re like bad checker players,” he said during the campaign—but, for China, handling the new President just got more complicated.
There are many reasons for China to be unhappy. In terms of politics, the attack upstaged a carefully choreographed political pageant, intended for a Chinese audience, portraying Xi as the most important item on the American agenda this week. In terms of strategy, China gets hives whenever the U.S. unilaterally attacks another country—Beijing half-wonders if someday that country will be China—and, in this case, China has repeatedly rejected United Nations Security Council resolutions against Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad. Trump’s snap decision to attack will force Chinese officials to reappraise a figure whom they had come to see as clownish and manageable.
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.