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Some in Beijing will regard Trump’s victory as potentially advantageous. The “disturbance effect” within the United States, and the sowing of doubt among allies that Washington would come to their aid in distress gives China an edge by spreading confusion in the enemy camp. On their appointment, senior members of the Trump administration scrambled to quieten this unease, reinforcing pledges to defend Japan and South Korea. But they had not done so before the president scrapped the Trans Pacific Partnership, a hugely ambitious free trade agreement that Obama championed in part to ensure that China did not write the rules of trade in the region. And Obama’s “pivot to Asia” — the cautious redeployment of US military assets to the region in response to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea — is now little spoken of in Washington. 

Against that is the perceived volatility of Trump’s temperament, his apparent preference for tweeting rather than meeting, and the dangers of his “America first” policy for China, whose economic well-being depends in part on running up a massive surplus in trade with the United States and much of whose huge capital flows are drawn to that country in the search for yield. Trump’s unprecedented phone conversation with the newly elected president of Taiwan, his vocal complaints that China had “stolen” US jobs, and anger that it had done so little to address the crisis caused by North Korea’s missile tests, made the party nervous. 

The US president’s highly personal style when meeting foreign leaders will have been another troubling issue for party leaders, even though outside observers might regard it as trifling. China’s leaders are not very good at spontaneity. They have enough trouble with informality, which can easily go off script and be caught on camera. Neither do they do bonding or warm personal friendship with their opposite numbers, whatever Trump may say about the “friendship” he struck up with Xi in Florida. A key purpose of the summit is not so much smiles as to depict Xi at home as a dignified statesman, comfortable with diplomatic protocol and international norms, and demonstrably held in respect by the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. Choreography is not everything, even for the cadres. But when it comes to diplomatic encounters of this nature, it is a valuable refuge for a risk-adverse, status-conscious Chinese leader in the company of an unknown opposite number a long way from home.

In the event, diplomatic gaffes were avoided in Florida and, so far as one can tell, the two men were at ease with each other, as was Xi with the quasi-informal setting. The two sides agreed to work intensively together to resolve trade issues, and to leave other matters to later meetings. Yet China will not have been happy about the fact that the summit coincided with the US missile strike on the airfield in Syria that Damascus is believed to have used to carry out chemical weapons attacks on rebels. This at once stole the global headlines from the Mar-a-Lago meeting, which Beijing wanted to be the centre of world attention for as long as possible. Worse, although Trump personally told Xi about his decision to carry out the strike, it made the Chinese leader look like a passive rather than an equal partner. Worst of all, the missile strike was an unwelcome example of US military power and the political will to exercise it. Thus, to concern about Trump’s unpredictability could be added an even greater anxiety: he might prove far more consistent than imagined when it came to the use of force to solve international problems. Beijing will have regarded news, within hours of Xi’s departure from Florida, that the US would deploy the Carl Vinson carrier strike force in waters close to the Korean peninsula, as both a provocation and humiliation. The fact that this news later proved to have been misleading will not have mitigated its impact in Beijing.

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