China's President Xi gets an awkward front-row seat to U.S. military might

Chinese President Xi Jinping had just finished a steak dinner with President Trump in a gilded dining room at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida when Trump told Xi that dozens of U.S. cruise missiles had just rained down on an airfield in Syria, a fiery display of U.S. military might that formed an awkward backdrop to a summit intended to introduce the leaders of the world’s two largest economies.

Trump had intended to press Xi for trade concessions and urge China to take a more active role in restraining North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, but the high-stakes discussions that began Thursday night and continued Friday were overshadowed by Trump’s muscular response to a poison gas attack blamed on Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Even though China normally opposes any use of U.S. force overseas — and has consistently sided with Russia in vetoing any anti-Syrian resolutions by the U.N. Security Council — the Syria drama may have been a welcome distraction for Xi, who was under pressure at home not to cede too much to the new U.S. president in advance of a major Communist Party leadership meeting in the fall.

Seemingly mindful of Chinese cultural mores, Trump eschewed any hint of boastfulness or the bellicose rhetoric he had employed on the campaign trail toward China, instead paying light-hearted tribute to Xi’s negotiating skills.

"We had a long discussion already. So far, I have gotten nothing. Absolutely nothing,” Trump told reporters after his initial meeting with Xi on Thursday night. “But we have developed a friendship. I can see that. I think, long-term, we are going to have a very, very great relationship.”

Xi’s trip to Florida lasted less than 24 hours and appeared carefully choreographed to limit the number of public interactions he and Trump would have. The two leaders agreed to a 100-day plan to review the trade relationship with China, to increase cooperation on ending North Korea’s nuclear program and concurred that the missile threat from North Korea had reached an urgent stage, according to Cabinet officials who described the meetings.

The two sides also agreed to a series of future meetings to tackle additional economic and security issues as well as U.S. concerns about Chinese cyberattacks. Xi invited Trump to visit China later in the year.

But events in Syria set the tone for this visit. After dinner, Xi left Trump’s resort for his hotel nearby, and Trump walked into a secure room at the resort for a classified update on the impact of the Syria strikes from national security officials.

Later, he delivered a sober address to the American people about why he had decided to retaliate militarily against Assad over the gas attack on Tuesday in northern Syria, which left dozens dead, generating gruesome images of victims foaming at the mouth and children’s tiny corpses.

Sitting with Trump during a major national security incident gave the Chinese leader an “unprecedented” opportunity to view at close range how the U.S. leader, less than 100 days into his presidency, acts under pressure, John Park, a specialist on Northeast Asia at Harvard Kennedy School, said in a telephone interview.

“For President Xi to see this unfold shoulder-to-shoulder is a rare opportunity to get — if you think of poker players — some very interesting tells,” Park said.

Chinese intelligence services have a sophisticated understanding of U.S. actions, Park said, and would be able to distinguish between Trump’s response to an attack against Syrian civilians using the banned nerve agent sarin and what the U.S.leader might do if threatened by some action by North Korea, which has been regularly test-firing ballistic missiles toward Japan.

But there was one message that the Chinese leader likely received.

“This shows how low a bar there is for the use of military force,” Park said.

On Friday, Xi returned to the resort in the late morning to meet with Trump and stroll around the grounds of Mar-a-Lago. The two leaders talked as they walked past palm trees and peach-colored stucco walls. News photographers took photos from a distance as Trump pointed out landmarks on his property, which sits between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway. Xi left after a lunch with Trump.

Photos: More tragedy in Syria as gas attack kills dozens »

The Chinese leader’s public comments were almost studiedly bland. Xi praised Trump for giving him “a warm reception” and described the visit as holding “a uniquely important significance” for the relationship between the U.S. and China.

The two men had “in-depth and lengthy communications,” Xi said, “and arrived at many common understandings, the most important being deepening our friendship and building a kind of trust.”

One of the most important things that can come out of an introductory meeting like this one was for Trump and Xi to feel comfortable having difficult discussions in the future, R. Nicholas Burns, a former top diplomat in both Democratic and Republican administrations, said in an interview.

“With the Chinese it is not a question of friendship, it is a question of trust,” Burns said. China is the “most consequential” relationship the U.S. will have for the next half century, he said.

“By all accounts Xi Jinping is the strongest, most important Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping,” Burns said.

The two men didn’t need to bond personally in order for the trip to be seen as successful, said Dean Cheng, an expert on China at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. The two may not come out of the meeting with “a Don and ’Xiao Xi’ relationship,” Cheng said, using an affectionate nickname for Xi.

Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, a famous soprano, visited music classes at a public middle school with First Lady Melania Trump on Friday. After a choir of girls sang “Astonishing,” Peng repeatedly said “Bravo!”

It wasn’t the Chinese first lady’s first encounter with an American counterpart. In 2014, she and then-First Lady Michelle Obama visited a Chinese calligraphy class in Beijing and walked together through the Forbidden City. A Chinese official traveling with Xi's wife said that developing friendship with Melania Trump is also an important goal.

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brian.bennett@latimes.com

Twitter: @ByBrianBennett

noah.bierman@latimes.com

Twitter: @Noahbierman

Bennett reported from Washington and Bierman from Palm Beach.

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