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China up close

What Olympics? Xi has eyes on Trump alone

Top diplomat is sent to assess US leader's North Korea policy

TOKYO -- The Winter Olympics in South Korea has been reduced to a backdrop for some geopolitical intrigue. While the world's eyes have been on Pyeongchang, one pair in Beijing has been focused on Washington. Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to find out if U.S. President Donald Trump is serious about taking military action against North Korea.

Xi rejected the passionate invitation from his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, and skipped the Pyeongchang opening ceremony. Four years ago, Xi attended the Sochi games, paying respect to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Furthermore, Beijing is the host of the upcoming winter games in 2022, and it would have been natural for Xi to be smiling in the Pyeongchang stadium.

The reality was, Xi had no time for such pleasantries.

"Xi ignored the Pyeongchang Olympics and had eyes on Donald Trump alone," a Chinese source said. "That's clear from China's diplomatic actions on the day of the opening ceremony."

The source was referring to Yang Jiechi's surprise visit to the White House on Feb. 9. Yang, China's top diplomat, is a state councilor and was promoted to the Communist Party's 25-member Politburo in October. He is an expert on U.S. relations.

It is not hard to imagine the orders Xi gave his envoy: Find out Trump's true intentions on North Korea; and: Does he mean it when he says all options are on the table? 

Knowing Trump's plans is crucial to Beijing. If the possibility of military options is high, China will have to reconfigure its game plan for North Korea.

In Washington, Yang was eager to try all avenues. Aside from his meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former translator for Deng Xiaoping met national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Jared Kushner, Trump's son in law. Yang was eager to prove he was worthy of the big promotion in October.

Meanwhile, in Pyeongchang, Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was stealing the show.

Her visit to South Korea sparked a media frenzy in the South. It was the first official visit by an immediate member of North Korea's Kim dynasty. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, sitting mere feet away from Kim in the opening ceremony, was hardly noticed.

South Korean President Moon hosted a reception on Feb. 9, immediately before the opening ceremony. But Pence did not even take his seat, leaving after five minutes and ignoring the North Korean delegation.

That delegation was led by Kim Yong Nam, the country's nominal head of state. By quickly leaving, Pence indirectly expressed his displeasure with Moon's bid to seat him at the same table as Kim Yong Nam.

Moon has to take some of the blame here. He failed to lay enough groundwork for what would have been a highly unusual rendezvous between top U.S. and North Korean officials.

Pence is thought to be one of the few Trump loyalists who really knows what the president is thinking. If Trump is considering a military response to North Korea's nuclear and missile development programs, his vice president cannot afford to shake hands with Kim Yong Nam or Kim Yo Jong.

Kim Jong Un applauds during a military parade in Pyongyang on Feb. 8.   © Kyodo

Despite being subjected to tough U.N. sanctions and to implied military threats from Trump, North Korea shows no sign of giving up its nuclear and missile advances. It is even ratcheting up the tension. On Feb. 8, a day before the Pyeongchang Olympics got underway, North Korea held a military parade in Pyongyang, showcasing its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

"Despite his harsh anti-U.S. rhetoric, including his threat to attack the U.S., Kim Jong Un can think and make decisions rationally," said a source familiar with Sino-North Korean relations and who has studied Pyongyang's diplomatic and security strategies for years. "Kim Jong Un has felt and feared Trump's seriousness about attacking North Korea and therefore abruptly played a card to prevent a U.S. attack."

That card came in the form of a proposal for a North-South summit in Pyongyang.

"Kim Jong Un is probably trying to use the Pyeongchang Olympics to hold Moon hostage," the source added.

Although Xi scorned the Pyeongchang Olympics, he has previously given South Korea some diplomatic respect. In July 2014, he visited South Korea, marking the first time for a Chinese leader to make a trip to South Korea before going to North Korea.

The snub humiliated and infuriated Kim Jong Un, who would retaliate twice in 2017. In May, North Korea launched a ballistic missile; in September it exploded a nuclear device under its soil. Each test coincided with a major international conference that Xi was hosting.

Meanwhile, the Beijing-Seoul honeymoon did not last long. Having grown wary of the North's nuclear and missile provocations, South Korea eventually deployed an advanced land-based missile defense system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.

The U.S. system's radar can look into China. The technological encroachment displeased Xi, who retaliated by making it difficult for Chinese tourists to visit South Korea and for South Korean companies to do business in China.

These moves have deeply wounded South Korea's economy.

In a move that reflects the current state of relations, Xi dispatched Han Zheng to the opening ceremony. Han is ranked only seventh in the Chinese Communist Party's hierarchy. He also attended Moon's reception and exchanged words with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whom he was sitting next to. In addition, Han interacted with Kim Yong Nam, seated at the same table.

In Pyeongchang, Moon met with Han and explained South Korea's North Korea policy. Moon also made a case for China to go easier on South Korean companies.

The Olympic Games are sometimes used as a symbol of global peace; they bring the world together to compete athletically rather than diplomatically, economically or even militarily. But perhaps no other Olympiad has been so politicized.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (bottom right) stands not far from Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (top left), and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (bottom left), at the Pyeongchang Olympics opening ceremony.   © Reuters

Kim Yo Jong's presence immediately overshadowed the athletes. And the focus remained on her until she left for home.

The next in line for the political spotlight might be Ivanka Trump, the U.S. president's daughter. The plan is for her to attend the closing ceremony, on Sunday. The South Korean government is expected to roll out the red carpet for the first daughter in an attempt to win her father over.

Ivanka Trump has already assumed a political role. She is said to have influenced her father when he order missile strikes in Syria about a year ago.

The strikes came last April as Trump entertained Xi at Mar-a-Lago, the U.S. president's posh Florida country club.

China had vehemently argued against the U.S. launching airstrikes in Syria.

But back to the Pyeongchang diplomatic games. Kim Yo Jong brought a proposal from her brother for a North-South summit in Pyongyang. She delivered it to Moon during a luncheon on Feb. 10 with a suggestion that a summit take place soon.

Moon replied that the two Koreas will make the proposed summit happen by creating the necessary conditions in the future. This was a step back for Moon, who had previously shown a strong desire to hold such a meeting.

North Korea's proposal is a shrewd gambit; its true intention is to prevent Trump from taking military action.

If a summit does not materialize soon, Trump could grow determined to fight. Time is also running out on North Korea in another respect: Those U.N. sanctions have crippled its economy.

Meanwhile, North Korea is becoming too hot to touch in China. This became apparent on the night of Feb. 10, when state-run China Central Television mentioned Kim Jong Un's invitation for Moon to visit Pyongyang as the ninth news item of the day. The mention came without comment.

China has advocated for a North-South summit in the past. But addressing North Korea's nuclear development program is now a much higher priority than setting up a meeting between the leaders of South Korea and North Korea.

CCTV did not comment on Kim Jong Un's invitation because China did not, and perhaps still does not, know Trump's intentions regarding North Korea.

There is another factor behind China's timidity.

Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meet at the State Department in Washington on Feb. 8, 2018.   © Reuters

As Yang's U.S. visit shows, China wants to project a close partnership between the two great powers. If Xi and Trump were to clash over North Korea, trade friction between the two would also intensify.

One focus now is whether the U.S. and South Korea will hold their planned military exercises after the Pyeongchang Olympics and Paralympics -- and how China might respond. North Korea will probably reiterate its demand that the drills be cancelled, a precondition to a North-South summit.

In addition, two big questions could soon be answered. One is whether Xi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Moon will be able team up to prevent Trump from reintroducing military force to the Korean Peninsula.

The other is whether there will be any official contact between the U.S. and North Korea. Those U.N. sanctions will play a big role in answering this one.

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