Donald Trump’s Syria strike may have upstaged Xi Jinping’s summit, but Beijing is only too happy to see the United States trap itself again in the Middle East.
- By James PalmerJames Palmer is the Asia editor at Foreign Policy, which he joined in the winter of 2016. He was born in Manchester, U.K., and educated at Cambridge, before moving to Korea in 2002 and then China in 2003. He won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing in 2003, for his work on South Korea. He has written two books — The Bloody White Baron and Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes — and is working on a third.
In China, political events proceed with clockwork choreography, especially state visits. So President Donald Trump’s decision to attack the Assad regime while in the middle of his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping came as a shock — the equivalent of holding a fancy dinner party for your boss and getting into a yelling match with a neighbor in the middle of it.
And as so often with the Trump administration, there’s a smorgasbord of bad motivations to pick from. It’s easy to imagine the murine sniggers of anti-Asian racist Stephen Bannon — still skittering around Trump’s entourage despite his recent removal from the National Security Council — at the prospect of slapping the Chinese down, or that Trump himself thought it would be the best way to seem like a big man in front of his guest.
Several U.S. commentators have been impressed by the “strength” demonstrated by the strikes in Syria — and the implicit messaging that, hey, we might just get a little crazy with North Korea next. But I doubt that’s how Beijing reads things. China is perfectly well aware of the military might and global reach of the United States; it’s not like they can’t count aircraft carriers. What it’s continually and pleasantly surprised by is how stupidly the United States uses that strength. For Xi, the strikes might have been a sign of disrespect — but they were also a reminder of the fundamental dumbness, from a Chinese strategic perspective, of U.S. foreign-policy decisions.
Sure, Syria is friendly with China — though more by transitive properties, of being a Russian client state at a time when Moscow is Beijing’s most consistent ally, than by any real ties. But it’s not an important market or a vital friend; it’s a distant, small country embroiled in a war far removed from China. (Syria’s 22 million people are a little less than the official population of Beijing.) Chinese citizens are just as moved by the murder of innocents as anyone else, when they know about it, but they’re not going to protest in the street about it, so the government doesn’t care.
Beijing likes to throw around the term “core interests.” Sometimes this is just rhetorical bullying, as when the term was redefined to include every inch of the South China Sea. But it’s also a reminder of Beijing’s steady, relentless focus on its key issues, both at home or abroad: Communist Party dominance, economic development, and territorial integrity. Taiwan matters, Syria doesn’t. The overshadowing of Xi by Syria on foreign news probably stung a little, especially for China’s weak, beleaguered Foreign Ministry, ever eager to prove to its bosses how much shine it’s putting on their image abroad. But on China’s domestic channels — the ones that really matter to the leaders — it was all Xi, all the time. The presidential glad-handing in Mar-a-Lago led the news broadcasts, not the Syria strikes.
Trump might have thought he was signaling a bold willingness to use force to his visitor, but China regards U.S. military might as early U.S. statesman Elbridge Gerry once did the prospect of standing army: “Like a standing member; an excellent assurance of domestic tranquillity, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.” China’s happy to gradually extend power elsewhere, especially in its own neighborhood. But it hasn’t gone to war for 38 years, since the last spasms of the Maoist era produced a blundering invasion of Vietnam in 1979. (In that time frame, the United States has gone to war in well over a dozen countries, and Russia in close to a dozen.) Beijing views Washington’s scatter-shot, flip-flop approach to foreign policy — especially in the post-Cold War era — as destabilizing, foolish … and useful.
Iraq, any Chinese decisionmaker will tell you, “bought us a decade.” Before 9/11, it looked as though the United States was moving to seriously contain China. Afterward, the Asia-Pacific languished as American lives and money bled out in Fallujah and Kandahar. While the United States was mired in the Middle East and Afghanistan, China was building factories, economic alliances, and artificial islands. As much as the Chinese publicly decry U.S. strategists’ suspicions about China’s rise to the forefront of the global stage, in private they see these concerns as both logical and inevitable — hence the popularity among Chinese international relations theorists of the “Thucydides Trap,” the idea that an emerging power will always clash with the existing hegemon. The United States went into Iraq for no good reason, spent a trillion dollars, and came out with nothing. From the Chinese perspective, they’d just started a chess game when their opponent spotted them a queen.
China will lightly beat the drum about the rights of sovereign states and Western interference — not least to do its duty by its actual ally and neighbor, Russia. It already used one of its relatively rare U.N. Security Council vetoes to block past sanctions on Syria as a signal of good faith to Russia, although it usually relies on Moscow to take the heat and abstains. But a United States that sticks its hand in the bear trap of Syria is a United States with fewer resources to devote to areas and issues that actually matter to China.
China’s approach has plenty of its own weaknesses. The narrow focus on domestic needs, without an international vision or moral crusade that others can latch on to, is one of the reasons its soft power is so cripplingly limited. Its lack of commitment elsewhere also makes it difficult to build the sort of alliances that have let the United States maintain a Washington-led global order for decades.
Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” project, envisaging China-led initiatives spanning Eurasia, may go some way to balance that — but given his growing absolutism at home, and the increasing inability of anyone to say no to him, it could also entangle China in the quagmires it has skillfully avoided for decades. For the moment, though, it’s America that, yet again, is getting ready to jump feet-first into the mud.
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