Shortly before eight in the evening, footage of President Trump hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping at the lavish Mar-a-Lago residence was on the air. The respective parties were seated around a big table; the presidents sat next to each other. Trump was tense; he locks his hands whenever he wants to prevent himself from sharing, we’ve learned.
As host, Trump pronounced a statement to the media in the room: “We’ve had a long discussion already, and so far I have gotten nothing, absolutely nothing, but we have developed a friendship – I can see that – and I think long term we are going to have a very, very great relationship and I look very much forward to it.” Trump then freed his right hand from under the table, turned to Xi Jinping and shook his hand. Firmly.
Xi was glowing of happiness. The decor was imperial; it reminded him of his trip to Buckingham Palace in October 2015. Chinese citizens back home reveled in watching their president standing next to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth. For decades, the population of Communist China has been incited by gold and wealth, however tasteless it may be. Now they were finally getting it; the dream had become a reality! They watched their party secretary surrounded by glittering gold, sitting in a golden carriage with the Queen of an Empire! It was mind blowing. And next to the old Queen their strongman looked so young and vigorous. And that gold! What wealth! A paradise!
Xi Jinping was having a flashback in real time– all these cameras and the precious, glittering objects in the room are familiar. But the people are dressed differently, and where is the Queen, Xi must have asked himself.
And so it was that before dinner, Syria was served. By the time they got on air and Trump pronounced those words of friendship, he likely informed Xi Jinping that his navy was about to bomb Syria. Not telling him would be a humiliation, and I don’t think that even Trump is capable of such a cruel gesture. Did he invite a visitor to his home to humiliate him? Perhaps if it was Angela Merkel, but not Xi Jinping. China is part of the plan.
The dinner at Mar-a-Lago was the first summit between the new troika. It could not have happened in the White House–too straightforward, too official. As President Trump was traveling on Air Force One to meet Xi in Florida, the Americans were discussing the bombing of Syria with Moscow. It was the talk among militaries, reported CNN from the Pentagon. When Trump landed, he closed himself and his staff in one of the 126 rooms of his Mar-a-Lago residence to discuss and approve the details of the operation; gave the order for the attack. The Russians were informed about the target and the timing of bombing. Then he and Melania, in her red summer dress, appeared at the doorstep of the villa to receive their Chinese guest.
The talks were extensive and friendly, as Trump described them in the first hour of meeting with President Xi. China did not object to the attack directly, and Xi can still claim that he never discussed anything like this with Trump. Same goes with Putin, and Moscow is now staging its anger by attacking the U.S. for their act of aggression, threatening to bring the matter to the UN Security Council. It might happen. Beijing, too, might do something that could ruin the present, tacit agreement if things take an unexpected turn.
Here is how I see it, though. Objectively, it is more or less obvious that the only solution for Syria is its partition. This idea first surfaced while the Russians and Americans were negotiating for a ceasefire in Syria during Obama’s presidency. Trump’s team embraced the idea by proposing to establish safe zones. The bombing of the Syrian airbase is the United States’ definite comeback on the Syrian stage.
An hour after the missiles destroyed Shayrat airfield, a launching pad for government attacks against Syrian rebels, the journalists, experts, and pundits were discussing the bombing with a cool air, seemingly relieved that it was happening. They created the impression that these 59 Tomahawks returned the world to its natural orbit. The legacy of Obama’s foreign policy was destroyed in seconds, and Trump appeared triumphant, proving that he can do in two days what Obama couldn’t in five years. This is a dangerous and dishonest game.
To my mind, Putin served Syria to Trump on a silver plate. The communications between Moscow and the Pentagon prove it. Besides, the Russians on the ground could use S-300 and S-400 missiles, located primarily around Khmeimim air base in western Syria, to shoot down the incoming U.S. cruise missiles. They did not. This, of course, does not mean that Russia, the U.S., and China have signed an agreement on how to divide Syria and the world. Not yet. They are negotiating the way but also protecting their particular interests. The three superpowers do not trust each other; they are still each covering their backs.
Is the alternative option– resolving the current global troubles peacefully– still possible? Presently, we can only observe this cynical game. Just condemning it does not eliminate it. As mentioned on different occasions, the current situation is a consequence of the decline of diplomacy as a tool for geopolitical problem-solving. The symbolic transfer of power from the White House to the Mar-a-Lago resort is symptomatic of the death of politics, the art of discussing world affairs within a political or even ideological framework. With Mar-a-Lago, things are out of control; it is the kind of venue used to entice President Xi Jinping, rather than work with him. We are in the hands of businesspeople now. Just look at the wealth of Trump, Putin, and Xi, and you will understand.
Since this post was going to be focused on some China issues before Syria was bombed by the U.S., let me just finish with a few words on China.
Posturing and the need to be part of the process of decision making are first. Even when there is no such kind of process, it’s important to be there, to have a seat in the first row. Trump got the attention of Beijing by talking to Taiwan even before he got into the White House. Now at Mar-a- Lago, Xi enjoys America’s return to a One China policy. Taiwan is no longer an issue, unless, as I said, something goes wrong. The question at this moment is North Korea and how much Beijing is interested in returning a favor and perhaps asking for more before it does. After Taiwan, the South China Sea and rich business in China for the Trump-Kushner clan are the possible deals on the table. And, in the first steps towards more intense involvement, is China ready to resolve the problem America has with North Korea? Can Syria be the model? If so, who will set the trap that will trigger an intervention against Pyongyang?
Are you getting dizzy? Hold on, because you haven’t seen anything yet.