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Analysis: Beijing, Surprised by US Strike on Syria, Ponders Timing

  • Pei Xu

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during a bilateral meeting with President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, April 7, 2017, in Palm Beach, Fla.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, widely known as a cautious man who dislikes surprises, arrived at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate for their first face-to-face meeting well-prepared to deal with all the tough issues the U.S. president might throw at him.

Those issues ranged from the $310 billion U.S. trade deficit with China to the recalcitrant North Korean regime whose nuclear and missile programs Trump insisted Beijing must help rein in or not. Taiwan, Tibet, and China's military expansion in the South China Sea also loomed large.

Well-prepared as Xi might have seemed to China watchers, he was apparently surprised when the U.S. military got an order from their commander-in-chief to launch Tomahawk cruise missile attacks on Syria in retaliation for the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.

Shortly after the dinner concluded Thursday night, 59 Tomahawk missiles were fired from two U.S. Navy destroyers deployed in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The strike reportedly left the Chinese president speechless.

No comment from Xi

So far, the Chinese president has not reacted to the unilateral military action against Syria. His official comment issued Friday ignored the strike: "President Trump made excellent preparations for our country's representatives and gave us a warm reception. … I believe that with the passage of time we will make efforts to bear our great historical responsibility for promoting the development of Sino-US relations, to create prosperity for both countries and their people and to uphold global peace and stability."

Back in Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Friday made a comment that did not appear to support the strike itself: “China supports the relevant United Nations agencies that conducted independent and comprehensive investigation into all cases of the likely use of chemical weapons. All the concerned parties should strive to maintain the hard-won process of a political solution of the Syrian issue.”

Before Xi arrived in Florida, Trump had warned he was prepared to go it alone to remove the Pyongyang threat of its nuclear and missile programs should China fail to rein in the situation. Many observers including those who are pro-Beijing, interpreted his remarks as bluster.

But, at the daily press briefing in Beijing on Friday, when asked whether the United States was sending a signal to North Korea with the strike on Syria, Hua said: “We believe a solution of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula through peaceful talks will best benefit all parties' interests. China is willing to go on and make efforts with all parties to seek the denuclearization of the peninsula, and maintain the peace on the peninsula.”

This satellite image released by the U.S. Department of Defense shows a damage assessment image of Shayrat air base in Syria, following U.S. Tomahawk missile strikes on Friday, April 7, 2017.
This satellite image released by the U.S. Department of Defense shows a damage assessment image of Shayrat air base in Syria, following U.S. Tomahawk missile strikes on Friday, April 7, 2017.

The Chinese media, tightly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party headed by Xi, has so far downplayed the U.S. missile attacks, instead focusing on the positive points of the meeting. The official Global Times, a publication affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party's newspaper People's Daily, was one of the few media outlets that reported on the strike.

A few hours after the Tomahawk missiles hit their targets in Syria, the Global Times published an article saying, "Trump quickly decided to strike the Assad regime in order to show his authority as the U.S. president. He wanted to prove that he dared to do what (former President) Obama dared not do. ... He also wanted to show to the whole world that he is not merely a businessman and that he is not hesitant to use U.S. military power when necessary."

The Xi government, its top advisers, and government-controlled media have for months been telling the Chinese that Trump is a businessman president who can be easily placated with commercial favors.

This report originated with the VOA Mandarin Service

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