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International relations

Trump must not be influenced by Xi's lavish welcome

Abe should help US president stand firm over North Korea but minimize war risks

Singing from China's hymn sheet? U.S. President Donald Trump with China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Nov. 9.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Chinese President Xi Jinping played a diplomatic game for U.S. President Donald Trump's latest visit to China in an apparent bid to win a deal over North Korea.

Xi sought to avert strong calls from Trump for China to get tough on North Korea by laying on lavish "state-visit-plus" red-carpet treatment for the U.S. leader.

A great gift was also offered -- $250 billion business deals between the U.S. and China including purchases of American goods. Even if some of the details were missing, the package sounded magnificent.

A key question of the extravagant arrangements by Xi is how they will affect the Trump administration's policy toward China. The problems of North Korea and the South China Sea could grow more serious if the U.S. makes concessions to China in the question of security. Japan, South Korea and other allies of the U.S. need to continue prompting the Trump administration not to give way to Beijing.

The Trump administration appears aware of potential risks of playing into China's hands. It is impossible for the U.S. to compromise with China in the question of security, administration officials said. The security of the U.S. itself would be impaired if the administration should make any compromise on this question, they added.

In particular, the U.S. is most unlikely to ever soften its stance on China in connection with North Korea.

But the time for settling the North Korean problem through dialogue is running very short because Pyongyang is nearing the point when it can deploy nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the mainland U.S. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency forecast that this deployment is possible in 2018, a view shared by many American security experts.

The nature of the risk involved could drastically change once the U.S. is faced with such a direct threat. Calls for hardline countermeasures may grow stronger among U.S. lawmakers and citizens once they become aware that they are exposed to the danger of nuclear attack, greatly affecting Trump's policy judgement.

While Trump is now inclined toward seeking diplomatic solutions over North Korea, he is studying more than 10 options, including military action, to prepare for the worst-case scenario, said a U.S. security expert privy to the administration's stance.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who are both retired Marine Corps generals, are reportedly remaining cautious about the option of military action but they are unable to figure out what Trump really has in mind.

Under these circumstances, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plays an important role because of his extremely strong friendship with Trump. Abe has already met Trump five times and held 16 telephone conversations with him. Trump clearly listens to Abe's advice: Trump occasionally tells his aids, "Shinzo said so and so," according to Japanese and U.S. government sources.

If the relationship between the two leaders is as close as reported, Abe should intensify his communications with Trump to prevent the U.S. president from making hasty judgments.

Exit scenarios

The worst case, which the U.S. and its allies should do their utmost to avoid, is to go through various uncoordinated diplomatic approaches without a definite plan that end up in either North Korea succeeding in arming itself with effective nuclear weapons or in unintended military clashes.

What should be done then? It is time for Japan, the U.S. and South Korea to work out an "exit" from the crisis, in coordination with discussing specific measures with China.

Needless to say, the North Korean problem should be settled peacefully. But multiple exit scenarios, including the assumption that any peaceful solution is difficult, should be prepared. In case military action is unavoidable, it will be indispensable for Japan, the U.S. and South Korea to communicate with other countries, especially China.

China has kept refusing to discuss future scenarios for North Korea with the U.S., according to diplomatic sources. It probably fears that North Korea could go out of control if Beijing openly engages in a process in which radical changes in Pyongyang might be considered. 

But time is running short for the U.S. and its allies to tolerate such a leisurely approach.

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