SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The airstrikes in Syria overshadowed in many ways another very important foreign policy event this week - President Trump's first meeting with the president of China, Xi Jinping. We're joined in our studio now by Richard McGregor. He's a veteran correspondent in China and author of the book "The Party: The Secret World Of China's Communist Rulers." Thanks very much for being with us, Mr. McGregor.
RICHARD MCGREGOR: Thank you.
SIMON: Do the Syria strikes throw off China's plans for this meeting in any way?
MCGREGOR: Well, I think for the Chinese, it was a distraction - a bit of an embarrassment, if you like. It sort of symbolically makes them - and this may have been part of the intent - you know, sidelined by what was a much more important event on the other side of the world. I think it also plays into what they worry about with Mr. Trump - that he's, you know, impulsive, unpredictable - puts them off balance in that respect.
But on the other side of the coin, you know, U.S. entanglements in the Middle East have been pretty good for China because they take Washington's, you know, focus away from Beijing and allow China to get on with what they want to do - build their economy free from interference from the U.S., expand their influence in the East China and South China Sea, build their military up. So I don't think they would have been too happy by it. And you can see that, in fact, in the Chinese press this morning, it really, you know, barely mentions the Syria attacks coinciding with the event.
SIMON: Is that because the president - you know, the president of China - is there with President Trump, and they want to make that seem...
MCGREGOR: Yeah. Yeah. I think the Trump-Xi meeting is much more important than them than playing up the Syria attacks.
SIMON: Let me ask you a question. There's so much concentration on what the United States would like from China vis-a-vis North Korea. What would what does China want from the United States?
MCGREGOR: On North Korea or generally?
SIMON: Well, let's do both, North Korea first.
MCGREGOR: Well, I think in terms of North Korea, I mean, we often forget the Chinese and North Koreans don't get on. The North Koreans drive the Chinese crazy, but the basic strategic bargain hasn't been changed. You know, China will not have a, you know - an unstable or destabilized state on their border, and nor will they have a unified Korea, which is allied to the U.S. So, you know, North Korea has China really kind of in a corner, as well.
Generally, I think, as far as the U.S. goes, that China wants predictability. It would like China...
SIMON: It can never have predictability in the way China has predictability.
SIMON: 'Cause this is a democracy, we elect different people.
MCGREGOR: Obama was a very predictable character, I think, and a very stable character. Trump, as I said - I think Trump rattled China when he came in. And in some ways, that could be a good thing, except Trump was also rattling America, so it kind of balanced each other out. You know, I think over time China wants the U.S. to cede to it as the dominant power in Asia. It wants eventually to have Taiwan. It wants other territorial claims it has in the East and South China Seas. So in that respect, the U.S. and China, I think, are on a collision course. And, you know...
SIMON: It's not comfortable with Taiwan staying the way it is pretty much? In many ways, Taiwan has been useful to China over the past...
MCGREGOR: Up to a point, but over time, I think particularly when we get to big anniversaries in 10, 20 years, you know - I think China wants Taiwan back. There's no doubt about that.
SIMON: Anything you can infer from the couple of days of talks?
MCGREGOR: Well, it was preliminary. It was providing ballast, I think, to further discussion. You see, they really did not get much done. The thing that I think - that animates Mr. Trump about China is trade and what he regards as China's unfair trading practices - that we're going to have a kind of a hundred-day sort of rushed discussion on trade issues now to get - try and get the trade deficit down. Of course, you can't do that during a hundred days. I suspect the U.S. and China are going to start to look like what the U.S. and Japan looked like in the '80s and '90s, having endless angry, bitter and largely unproductive trade disputes, the difference being, of course, the U.S. could pressure Japan as an ally, but the U.S. can't pressure Japan - China like it could Japan.
SIMON: But - even given the leverage of trade?
MCGREGOR: Absolutely - even given the leverage of trade.
SIMON: Richard McGregor is a journalist and the author of a book on the Chinese Communist Party called "The Party." His forthcoming book is about East Asian flashpoint - flashpoints. Forgive me. Mr. McGregor, thanks so much for being with us.
MCGREGOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.