How US President Donald Trump’s interpreted Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping’s attitude towards him and the “chemistry” during their first encounter, in Florida on April 6-7, was extremely revealing.
By his own admission, only 10 minutes into what amounted to a lecture by Xi on Chinese-North Korean relations, Trump realised: “It’s not so easy” and “not as simple as people would think”.
Any psychoanalyst could glean a good deal from the subsequent Q&A between Trump and Fox News’ anchor Maria Bartiromo:
Trump: I had a very, very good meeting with President Xi of China. I really liked him. We had a great chemistry, I think. I mean at least I had a great chemistry – maybe he didn’t like me, but I think he liked me.
We were going to have a 10- or 15-minute sit-down. It lasted for three hours.
The 15 minutes on the second day lasted for two hours, just one-on-one, the two of us with interpreters.
And I mean we understand each other. I think he’s, you know, a person that I got along with really well. We had a good chemistry, yes.
Bartiromo: Did he give you any suggestion that he would help...
Bartiromo: – with North Korea?
Trump: We had the meeting.
Bartiromo: Did you get into trade and currency?
Trump: The first thing I brought up was North Korea. I said you’ve got to help us with North Korea, because we can’t allow it. And it’s not good for you. And you have a tremendous power because of trade.
Now, he then explains thousands of years of history with Korea. Not that easy. In other words, not as simple as people would think.
They’ve had tremendous conflict with Korea over the years.
So I said, look, you have a tremendous power because of trading through the border. If they don’t get food, they don’t get, you know, they can’t sell their coal. In fact, I hear today two massive coal ships from North Korea were sent back to North Korea, heading to China. They were sent back, which is a very good sign.
But I think China can help us. I hope China can help us. We talked about trade and I can tell you, China will do much better on trade if they help us with North Korea.
Bartiromo: And you think he knows that?
Trump: I think he knows that. I told him that, yes.
Bartiromo: When you were with the president of China, you’re launching these military strikes [on Syria]?
Bartiromo: Was that planned?
How did that come about that it’s happening right then, because right there, you’re saying a reminder, here’s who the superpower in the world is, right?
Trump: You have no idea how many people want to hear the answer to this.
Bartiromo: When did you tell him? Before dessert or what?
Trump: But I will tell you, only because you’ve treated me so good for so long.
I was sitting at the table. We had finished dinner. We’re now having dessert. And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen and President Xi was enjoying it.
And I was given the message from the generals that the ships are locked and loaded, what do you do?
And we made a determination to do it, so the missiles were on the way. And I said, Mr President, let me explain something to you. This was during dessert.
We’ve just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing.
Trump: It’s so incredible. It’s brilliant. It’s genius. Our technology, our equipment, is better than anybody by a factor of five. I mean look, we have, in terms of technology – nobody can even come close to competing.
Now we’re going to start getting it, because, you know, the military has been cut back and depleted so badly by the past administration and by the war in Iraq, which was another disaster.
So what happens is I said we’ve just launched 59 missiles heading to Iraq and I wanted you to know this. And he was eating his cake. And he was silent.
Bartiromo: To Syria?
Trump: Yes. Heading toward Syria. In other words, we’ve just launched 59 missiles heading toward Syria. And I want you to know that, because I didn’t want him to go home. We were almost finished. It was a full day in Palm Beach. We’re almost finished and I – what does he do, finish his dessert and go home and then they say, you know, the guy you just had dinner with just attacked a country?
Bartiromo: How did he react?
Trump: So he paused for 10 seconds and then he asked the interpreter to please say it again. I didn’t think that was a good sign.
And he said to me, anybody that uses gases – you could almost say or anything else – but anybody that was so brutal and uses gases to do that young children and babies, it’s okay.
Did Xi say, “It’s okay?” I doubt it. The Chinese leader might have been trying to be polite. But he certainly was caught off-guard. His “10-second silence” was probably a clear message that he thought the whole thing was just too bizarre to ponder.
Yes, diplomacy is much, much more complicated than Trump thought. It certainly wasn’t “so easy”.
How Xi actually reacted to Trump’s “surprise” message about the Syria strike may never be known. The Chinese style of diplomacy is much more nuanced and subtle.
Xi might have said the use of chemical weapons was unacceptable. But he surely didn’t say that it’s okay for the US to fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria.
China Daily reported that the two presidents did talk about the situation in Syria. “Xi said any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and that the path of political settlement should be followed,” the paper said.
“Political settlement” was obviously the key phrase in the Chinese leader’s response. He surely didn’t endorse Trump’s decision to bomb Syria.
Trump has told Xi: “If China doesn’t help us over the North Korean problem, we will do it on our own.” That obviously represents a backhanded way of handling another major country with which one wants to establish better relations.
If by “taking care of the problem” Trump means striking at North Korea, Xi’s response, given through his foreign minister, Wang Yi, was unquestionably right to the point:
“Once a war really happens, the result will be nothing but multiple losses. No one can become a winner.”
For Trump, the learning curve remains very steep indeed.