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Trump puts Xi Jinping on the mat over North Korea

By M K Bhadrakumar

India was once at the receiving end when one of its top dignitaries was embarrassed while on an official visit by the host country. This was the famous fiasco during the visit to China by the then External Affairs Minister A. B. Vajpayee in February 1979. Vajpayee had to scurry back home when it transpired that China militarily intervened in Vietnam while he was on Chinese soil. Another famous incident of this sort took place in March 1999 when the then Russian PM Yevgeni Maximovich Primakov was heading to the United States for an official visit and midway over the Atlantic he learnt that the combined forces of NATO had started bombing Serbia, a close ally of Russia. Primakov ordered the plane to turn around, and returned to Moscow. The manoeuvre went down in books on international diplomacy as “Primakov’s Loop”. Are we now on the brink of witnessing a far more serious happening of this nature?

Hardly within hours of the Chinese President Xi Jinping concluding a high-profile two-day visit to the United States where he clocked 7 hours of “deep discussion” (according to Chinese FM Wang Yi) with his American counterpart Donald Trump, which were “candid”, “open”, “very positive” and “setting a very constructive tone going forward” (to quote state secretary Rex Tillerson), which were “positive and fruitful” and “mark a new starting point” (according to Xinhua) in Sino-American relations well, well, the United States Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris announces that the U.S. Carl Vinson Strike Group has departed from Singapore and sailed northward to the Western Pacific ocean near the Korean Peninsula. The strike group includes the Nimitz-class aircraft super carrier USS Carl Vinson as well as several other missile destroyers and missile cruisers, and it is cancelling a previously planned port visit to Australia and is being diverted to the Western Pacific.

Of course, no second guesses what the strike group’s mission is about  to read the riot act to one of China’s closest allies, North Korea. If the mission is to attack North Korea or to intimidate and provoke that country with a view to trigger military action, this could turn out to be a major embarrassment for Chinese leader Xi Jinping personally even as a crucial Party Congress looms ahead in China. At the very least, Xi was skating on thin ice in Florida engaging with an American president who is completely unpredictable and will not hesitate to cynically advance his own political interests in any given situation. A brutally frank Iranian commentary by Fars news agency, which is associated with Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, had warned Beijing only yesterday that against the backdrop of the “great game” on the Eurasian chessboard, Trump had shown disrespect to Xi deliberately by timing the US missile strike on Syria to commence just as he was hosting the Chinese leader and the First Lady to dinner on Friday evening.

This is how Tillerson recounted that historic moment at the Last Supper in the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida: The President (Trump) did directly inform President Xi near the end of the dinner yesterday (Friday) evening as the missiles that are launched were impacting, which was about 8:40 p.m. last night. The President told President Xi that we had launched a strike against Syria as a result of Assad’s violation  multiple violations of the use of chemical weapons against his own citizens, including the killing of women, children, and babies.  The President provided President Xi the number of missiles that were launched and explained the rationale behind it.

The unkindest cut of all was that Tillerson claimed that Xi expressed understanding for the US missile strike on Syria, and spoke approvingly of Trump’s decision, implying that Syrian government was responsible for the chemical weapon attack in Idlib. Read how Tillerson framed it gingerly, sensing he was under instructions to speak a lie, and distancing himself from the act of calumny, which he was intelligent enough to know would have a short shelf life only: President Xi I think expressed an appreciation for the President letting him know and providing the rationale and said, as it was told to me, indicated that he understood that such a response is necessary when people are killing children. Now, China has issued its own statements.  I’m sure those are available to you.  I have read them on them on the wire service, as well.

It is a travesty of truth that China supports the US attack in Syria. The Chinese pronouncements might have been fairy restrained in the beginning, but as the New York Times reported, once Xi left Florida and his aircraft was airborne, Chinese commentaries began shifting gear and became explicitly critical of Trump’s military move against Syria. To be sure, as the US aircraft carrier strike group approaches North Korea in the coming fateful days, this becomes a moment of truth for China. The heart of the matter is that the cat-and-mouse game between Washington and Beijing over North Korea is nearing the home stretch, as the Americans would say, and no one can foretell what is exactly on Trump’s mind. To be sure, this developing situation is unlikely to have a “win-win” denouement, to use a contemporary expression.

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