Trump's 'cordial' meeting with Xi overshadowed by US Syria strike

President Trump had dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Mar-a-Lago country club last night  just as the U.S. launched a barrage of missiles at an air base in Syria in retaliation for a gas attack on civilians.

The Chinese downplayed the timing of the strike, as the foreign ministry in Beijing released a statement saying only that all parties in Syria should find a political settlement.

The two leaders discussed trade at dinner – one of the major issues to be addressed during the summit.


Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, joined Trump and his wife, Melania, at a long table in an ornate candle-lit private dining room festooned with red and yellow floral centerpieces, where they dined on pan-seared Dover sole and New York strip steak.

Trump, a New York real estate magnate before he ran for office, joked before dinner: "We've had a long discussion already, and so far I have gotten nothing, absolutely nothing. But we have developed a friendship – I can see that – and I think long term we are going to have a very, very great relationship and I look very much forward to it."

The fanfare over the summit on Thursday was overshadowed by another pressing foreign policy issue: the U.S. response to a deadly poison gas attack in Syria. As Trump and Xi were wrapping up dinner, U.S. forces fired dozens of cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase from which it said the chemical weapons attack was launched this week, an escalation of the U.S. military role in Syria that swiftly drew sharp criticism from Russia.

In Beijing, China's Foreign Ministry urged all parties in Syria to find a political settlement.

Trump and Xi were expected to get into more detailed discussions about trade and foreign policy issues on Friday, concluding their summit with a working lunch.

Trump promised during the 2016 presidential campaign to stop what he called the theft of American jobs by China and rebuild the country's manufacturing base. Many blue-collar workers helped propel him to his unexpected election victory in November and Trump wants to deliver for them.

Nothing vital is expected to be resolved at the summit, including what to do about the North Korean nuclear threat.  China has more influence over the North Koreans and its unbalanced leader, Kim Jong-un, than any other country but so far has mostly refused to use that influence to moderate North Korea's behavior.  President Xi will get a good idea of how seriously Americans are taking Kim's threats but probably won't alter China's current policy. 

Xi has shown himself to be a pragmatist in foreign affairs, but on issues directly affecting Chinese security – including the controversial militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea – he has also demonstrated an inflexibility to deal.  Whether the U.S. president can reach Xi on this and other security issues will determine the direction of U.S.-China relations in the future.

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