Donald Trump has welcomed the start of “a very, very great relationship” with the president of China, Xi Jinping, after months of Twitter attacks and tension capped in a candle-lit steak dinner at the billionaire’s palm-dotted Mar-a-Lago resort.
When Xi came to the US two years ago, Trump attacked Barack Obama’s red-carpet welcome, claiming he would have offered a Big Mac rather than a state dinner to a leader whose country he has accused of “raping” the American economy, but pan-seared Dover sole, New York strip steak and Sonoma chardonnay were on the menu after the Communist party chief touched down in Florida with his wife, the chart-topping singer, Peng Liyuan on Thursday afternoon for two days of talks.
“It is a great honor to have the president of China and his incredibly talented wife a great, great celebrity in China and a great singer in the United States,” Trump told his guests.
“We’ve had a long discussion already and so far I have gotten nothing, absolutely nothing,” he joked. “But we have developed a friendship I can see that and I think in the long term we’re going to have a very, very great relationship and I look very much forward to it.”
Before the summit, trade disputes and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs were tipped to top the list of discussions between Trump and Xi, who returns to China on Friday afternoon.
But as the leaders of the world’s two largest economies retired from their first evening together, a rapidly escalating crisis in Syria threatened to overshadow their long-awaited meeting as Trump ordered cruise missile strikes in response to the deadly chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhun.
China, which alongside Russia has repeatedly opposed UN resolutions against Assad, did not immediately respond to Trump’s move but experts said it was likely to be both angered and impressed by the strikes.
“This is probably not a welcome development for Xi and the Chinese in terms of optics,” said Paul Haenle, a veteran US diplomat who advised George W Bush and Barack Obama on China policy.
“It somewhat weakens the image of Xi as a strong statesman on the world stage. It will distract from coverage of the summit in US media. But more importantly, I think it says a lot about the US power and preeminent leadership role. It’s hard to imagine any other country in the world making that kind of unilateral strike – certainly not China.”
Bonnie Glaser, an expert in Chinese foreign policy, said Beijing would view Trump’s strikes as proof he was not afraid of taking bold military action, a reality that had potential implications both in North Korea and the South China Sea.
“The fact that he did this while Xi Jinping is in Mar-a-Lago is quite telling. None of this is planned, in my view. But I do think it necessarily sends a signal to Xi Jinping that this is a president that means business. That he is not going to sit around and spend and enormous amount of time weighing through things. He is just going act very decisively … I think they will view him with respect.”
During their dinner on Thursday night, Trump and Xi exchanged highly choreographed smiles and a brief handshake before the cameras. Xi politely applauded Trump’s prediction of friendship. It was not immediately clear if the Chinese president had been given advance warning of the strikes on Syria.
But experts say the public enthusiasm masks profound suspicions and even animosity and believe the behind-the-scenes conversations have the potential to be far less cordial.
“The Trump administration is deeply distrustful of China,” said Ashley Townshend, a University of Sydney academic who wrote a recent report on the billionaire’s plans for Asia. “They view China as a strategic competitor that needs to be checked with American power because it is taking advantage of the United States. These views run deep in the administration, they run deep among key advisers.”
Chinese internet users claimed their leader had come out on top from the initial exchange with Trump. “I could tell how nervous Trump was from the way his lips were quivering as he waited for Xi’s arrival,” wrote one user of Weibo, China’s Twitter.
Others celebrated how the US president had extended an unusually sedate handshake to the Chinese leader. “Finally, Trump has learned how to shake hands,” one Weibo user wrote.