President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syria sent a powerful message to a number of world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, the president’s dinner guest during the bombing.
The Syrian regime reportedly used chemical weapons Tuesday against innocent civilians, killing women and children at a hospital. In response, the Trump administration called for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and carried out cruise missile strikes on the airfield used to launch the chemical weapons attack. This decisive action by the new administration took place while Trump and his Chinese counterpart were having dinner with Trump informing Xi of the strikes over dessert. The move sent the important message that the U.S. is still the “preeminent power,” according to a seasoned diplomat and China hand.
“I think it says a lot about the U.S. 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,” Paul Haenle, an experienced diplomat who advised both George W. Bush and Barack Obama on China, told The Guardian.
“I think it underlines the fact that despite Xi’s interest in using this summit to position himself and China as a peer of the U.S. and of Trump’s, China still has a very long way to go in terms of global power and influence,” he commented, adding “the U.S. is still the world’s preeminent power, and it remains the country that shoulders global responsibility.”
“The Chinese narrative has increasingly been that Trump is a paper tiger,” Haenle explained. This train of thought surfaced after Trump walked back his threats to overturn the one-China policy.
“Trump lost his first fight with Xi and will be looked at as a paper tiger,” Shi Yinhong, a foreign policy advisor for the Chinese government, told the New York Times. “This will be interpreted in China as a great success, achieved by Xi’s approach of dealing with him.” Some observers suggested that China would see the president as weak.
Trump’s hesitancy to punish China for its unfair trading practices as he promised to do on the campaign trail exacerbated this view, in addition to the limited response to North Korea’s repeated provocations.
Trump’s recent actions in Syria turned this narrative on its head.
“The missile strike on Syria demonstrates President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained after the strikes. “President Trump made that statement to the world tonight.”
“I do think it necessarily sends a signal to Xi Jinping that this is a president that means business,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Guardian, adding, “It will play into how China will view Trump. I think they will view him with respect.”
The Obama administration backed down from its red line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, settling for a deal that failed to eliminate the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons stockpile. The former administration’s unwillingness to use force and follow through on its warnings is believed to be behind the expansion of Chinese power in the South China Sea, and the previous president’s policy of “strategic patience” did little to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.