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Trump-Xi Informal Summit; By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Article no: 0035/2017

Q1. What is your assessment of the results of the Trump-Xi Jinping informal meeting? Is there any breakthrough in talks between them? What will be the relations between the two countries in the future?

ANSWER: Initially China insisted on an informal summit rather than a meeting with President Trump at The White House. This was in order to avoid having to issue a joint statement that committed both parties to specific actions. The meeting at Mar-a-Lago served the agenda of both presidents. Trump wanted the meeting to impress his domestic support base that he was dealing with trade and other China-related issues he raised during the campaign. Xi wanted the meeting because China wants equal billing with the U.S. in the eyes of the world community and Chinese people.

Q2. Do you know whether they discussed and reached any consensus in the issues of North Korea’s nuclear program, the South China Sea, or Taiwan?

ANSWER: There has not been any detailed read out by The White House on the meeting at this time. It is clear the two leaders agreed to start talks within 100 days on trade and economic issues. This takes the heat out of the U.S. trade imbalance as China can offer some concessions and Trump can take credit for making a deal. Trump agreed to visit China next year. North Korea was obviously discussed. Trump and Xi are poles apart on key issues but they do agree on sanctions against North Korea to halt nuclear proliferation. Neither China nor the US wants North Korea to develop nuclear weapons and the intercontinental delivery systems that go with such weapons. China will not topple the Kim Jong-un regime with tougher economic sanctions because it does not want to pick up the pieces of a collapsed North Korea. And China does not want to see a unified Korea emerge with the South in command and the U.S. as a treaty ally of a unified Korea. Xi strenuously opposes THAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) system while Trump is committed to both South Korea and Japan to provide defences against North Korean ballistic missiles.

If the South China Sea issue was discussed both sides would have presented their views and agreed to disagree. Since there was no joint statement their differences could be papered over. Xi’s gambit is to draw Trump into cooperation on bilateral economic issues as well as global issues and by so doing keep the South China Sea as a core Chinese interest of no consequence to the United States.

On Taiwan, if it came up, Trump would have declared his support for the One China policy. Here again both sides have different views on US arms sales to Taiwan but neither is likely to push this issue at this stage.

Q3. Vietnamese local media, as well as some foreign observers, have provided different interpretations for Trump’s attack on Syria from the official reasons issued by The White House. What is your assessment?

ANSWER: President Trump ordered the Tomahawk cruise missile attack for the reasons he gave – Syria’s use of chemical weapons – weapons of mass destruction – are a threat to both U.S. allies in the Middle East and to the national interests of the United State. Great care was taken to attack the Syrian support system that delivered sarin gas and to minimize casualties, both Syrian and Russian. The prime reason for these attacks was to send a message to Syria and any other state or non-state party that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated and will invite a U.S. response. But it must have been blindingly obvious to Trump’s national security advisers that the cruise missile attacks would send a message to North Korea and China about Trump’s mettle. As noted by Secretary Tillerson, the era of U.S. strategic patience is over and the U.S., which would like to work with China, will act unilaterally if need be.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. Email: All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients.]

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