The widely-anticipated summit between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping ended last Friday with little media fanfare. According to multiple sources covering the summit—which lasted for 21 hours—the meeting focused more on form than substance. The two leaders were reportedly “cordial” and “businesslike,” which stood in stark contrast with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the “Southern White House” just two months ago.
Yet, President Trump’s post-summit comments to the press highlighted that the two sides made “tremendous progress” over a wide-range of issues. Most notably, the summit produced a commitment by the two leaders to hold the US-China Comprehensive Dialogue, formulation of a 100-day action plan on trade, and a promise by Trump to visit China at a later date. Despite speculations that Beijing may be pressing the Trump administration for a Fourth Communiqué in the lead-up to the summit, the meeting between the two leaders produced no apparent deliverables directly related to Taiwan.
It was no secret—or perhaps a badly kept one—that Beijing wanted more assurances on Taiwan from the first Trump-Xi summit, especially after the roller coaster ride that began last December when Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan.
However, the Trump-Xi summit produced no joint statement, much less a Fourth Communiqué, or any statements mentioning Taiwan at all, for that matter. At a cursory glance, the summit would appear to have had little to no implications for Taiwan. To be sure, Taiwan’s Presidential Office noted that there were no surprises in the results of the Trump-Xi summit. However, the absence of any direct statements concerning Taiwan does not mean that the summit was void of signals as to how both Trump and Xi treat the issue of Taiwan within the bilateral relationship.
Indeed, the signals from the summit came not from what was said or not said. Rather, the two sides’ approach to Taiwan may be inferred by their treatment of issues seemingly unrelated to Taiwan. The first factor is the timing of the summit itself. By previous standards, the summit between the current leaders of the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) happened much faster than under the previous three US presidents. The second factor is the political effects of President Trump’s decision to order military strikes against a Syrian air base in response, at least in part, to the “horrible” and “awful” images of gassed children in Syria.
Indeed, the Trump-Xi summit had been arranged faster between Trump and Xi than for the previous three US presidents. In his administration, Barack Obama had his first face-to-face meeting with his counterpart, Hu Jintao, in Beijing in November 2009, eight months after his inauguration (all US presidential inaugurations are held on January 20). Similarly, George W. Bush met Jiang Zemin for the first time in October 2001, and Bill Clinton had his first summit with Jiang in November 1993.
Interestingly, while it is clearly conceivable that Beijing wanted the summit more than Trump, Xi walked away from the summit with little to show for himself, in terms of assurances on Taiwan. The Chinese state-run media, however, did not hesitate to wax lyrical about the successes of the summit. The situation raises the question: why the apparent haste? Of course, the definition of success is in the eyes of the beholder. While a Fourth Communiqué never materialized, that the meeting was seen as a success back home may be more important for Xi than additional assurances on Taiwan.
Chris Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the CIA, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested that Beijing’s objectives for a potential Fourth Communiqué and the meeting may have little to do with Taiwan and much more to do with other political considerations.
According to Johnson, “If there was a Fourth Communiqué, it [Taiwan] would be a relatively small part of the equation,” and would have more to do with the desire to update the standing communiqués in order to, “take into account Beijing’s stronger global position” and elicit official US acknowledgement of the existing Chinese political system. The primary motivations for the summit, according to Johnson, were entirely rooted in Xi’s domestic agenda for the 19th Party Congress. He enumerated the four factors constituting Beijing’s agenda and motivations: 1) show that Xi can manage the bilateral relationship with the United States; 2) burnish Xi’s international credentials; 3) reflect Xi’s confidence; and 4) signal the strength of Xi’s domestic political position.
Clearly also looming in the background on day two of the summit were the effects of Trump’s decision to deploy several dozen tomahawk missiles against the Syrian air base responsible for deploying the chemical weapons. Trump’s order demonstrated, at least in part, that he may be persuaded by moral imperatives. Indeed, the US President called out the attack by the Assad regime for its killing of “innocent children, innocent babies,” which “crossed a lot of lines for me.” When Trump notified Xi of the strike near the end of their dinner, the signal could not have been more clear. While President Trump has repeatedly emphasized that the United States will not seek to impose its way of life on others, other countries should not assume that the United States will not exercise moral leadership if and when it is required.
Given President Trump’s penchant for unpredictability, one of Xi’s biggest concerns was that he not lose face in the meeting. According to a Chinese official cited by Reuters, “Ensuring President Xi does not lose face is a top priority for China.” While hindsight is often 20/20, with the political jockeying for power going on in the lead-up to 19th Party Congress, which typically takes place in October or November, it is plausible that Xi wanted to quiet any doubts about his leadership sooner rather than later.
The main point: The broad contours of the new US-PRC relationship are slowly being formed. While the Trump-Xi meeting made no mention of Taiwan, Xi’s apparent desire for political stability on the homefront likely points towards continuity in his approach towards the Taiwan issue.