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U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping take a walk together after a bilateral meeting at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, on April 7.   © Reuters
China's Party Congress 2017

China's 'great-power diplomacy' will be tested by North Korea

Can Xi present Trump with a bold proposal equivalent of Mao and Deng?

TETSUSHI TAKAHASHI, Head of Nikkei's China Headquarters and KEN MORIYASU, Nikkei Asian Review chief desk editor

BEIJING -- His hold at home secure for another five years, Chinese President Xi Jinping now aims to cement his country's place at the heart of a new international order, dealing on equal terms with what he sees as China's nearest peer in terms of influence: the U.S.

But Xi's diplomatic prowess will be put to the test early next month when U.S. President Donald Trump visits China. The No. 1 item on the agenda will be how to handle North Korea. Trump has urged Beijing to deal with its truculent ally, but has understood that Xi had to first deal with the Communist Party's national congress.

Now, with the congress closed, Trump will not hesitate to press China to use all of its leverage to influence Pyongyang. The options are not appealing for Xi. Suffocating Kim Jong Un's regime with oil and food embargoes could ignite a crisis. Allowing Kim to continue his nuclear and missile provocations could invite a conflict between North Korea and the U.S.

Washington connection

Diplomacy has never been a top concern for China. Since paramount leader Deng Xiaoping embarked on his "reform and opening up" policy in 1978, Beijing's focus has been primarily on economic growth. One had to look no further than the leadership composition to notice that neither the nation's chief diplomat on the State Council, nor the foreign minister were politburo members.

China's then-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi attends a basketball game with then-U.S. President George W. Bush, second from right, and his father and former president George H.W. Bush, left, at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.   © Reuters

That changed on Wednesday. Yang Jiechi, a former foreign minister and sitting foreign affairs chief on China's State Council, became the first top diplomat to land a seat on the 25-member body since Qian Qichen, who spearheaded Chinese foreign policy from the 1980s through the early 2000s. Yang, too, is expected by some to be appointed vice premier when the National People's Congress, the country's parliament, meets next spring.

His elevation reflects the importance Xi places on relations with the U.S. Known as a Washington insider, Yang served as China's ambassador to the U.S. and has personal connections with the Bush family -- the political dynasty that has produced two American presidents -- and the Republican Party.

Yang provided extensive behind-the-scenes support for Xi's first meeting with Trump in April. The two leaders spoke again Wednesday over the phone, with Trump congratulating Xi on securing his second term as party chief. Xi responded that China places a great deal of importance on developing bilateral ties with the U.S. What Beijing wants are healthy, stable relations over the long term based on mutual respect and mutual benefit, the leader said.

Equal footing

In his Oct. 18 opening address to the party's twice-a-decade National Congress, Xi spoke in even stronger terms, saying China intends to advance "great-power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics" on all fronts. The U.S. has shown signs of retreating from the global stage since Trump took office on a promise to put "America first," giving Xi the opportunity to position his country as a counterweight to Washington's protectionist leanings.

This does not mean taking an adversarial stance toward the U.S. Rather, Xi looks to establish an international order where the U.S. and China occupy separate spheres of influence, with China representing emerging nations. This is what Xi calls a new type of major-power relations, and it is likely to feature prominently in his next five years as leader.

Trump, who has struggled to reign in North Korea's nuclear and missile development, will almost certainly lean on Xi during their upcoming meeting to take a tougher line with China's neighbor.

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its escort ships train at sea. (Courtesy of the US Navy)

In what is seen as a message to both North Korea and to China, Trump is gathering multiple aircraft carriers in the region to coincide with his visit to Asia. On Monday, the San Diego-based USS Theodore Roosevelt Strike Group entered the waters administered by the U.S. 7th Fleet on its way to the Middle East. On Wednesday, the USS Nimitz and its escort ships left the Persian Gulf, administered by the U.S. 5th Fleet, and entered the 7th Fleet waters on its way home to Bremerton, Washington. Along with the USS Ronald Reagan, forward deployed to Yokosuka, Japan, there are three carrier strike groups, each with more than 7,000 sailors and marines aboard, operating in Asia.

Successfully navigating this meeting with Trump is an essential step toward better ties for Xi. But China does not seem to have a masterstroke against North Korea in store, and Trump could grow impatient -- a potential warning sign for the upgraded relationship Xi hopes to kick off.

"The North Korean stalemate can only be broken if China makes a decision on how to proceed," said Kunihiko Miyake, a visiting professor at Ritsumeikan University and former Japanese diplomat. "But unlike Mao Zedong, who highhandedly decided to open diplomatic relations with the U.S. or Deng Xiaoping, who said the Senkaku Island issue can be shelved, I do not think Xi is strong enough domestically to make a tough call on North Korea," he said.

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