April 5, 2017 12:05 am JST
Keith B. Richburg

North Korea looms over Xi-Trump summit

Trade could fall by the wayside as both parties tussle over rogue state

The first summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping was always expected to be tense, even more than usual when a new American president meets the head of the ruling communist party in the world's most populous nation.

During last year's election campaign, Trump labeled China a trade cheat and currency manipulator, and said he would serve Xi "a McDonald's hamburger" instead of throwing him a state dinner. Trump has kept up the drumbeat of criticism, tweeting on March 30: "We can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses" and predicting a "very difficult" summit with Xi.

But after a series of provocative missile tests, North Korea has emerged as the main existential threat to the U.S. And the Trump administration sees China as Pyongyang's principal enabler.

As much as Trump has rhetorically attacked China for stealing American jobs and industry, he has also made clear -- most recently in an interview with The Financial Times -- that he intends to hold Beijing to account for not helping to rein in North Korea's nuclear program and restrain leader Kim Jong-un's seemingly erratic behavior.

"China has great influence over North Korea," Trump told the FT. "And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won't." He then warned: "If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will."

That threat was not issued in a vacuum. In an earlier March tweet, Trump wrote, "North Korea is behaving very badly," and then: "China is doing little to help!" That was just before his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing and announced that America's "strategic patience" with the Pyongyang regime had ended. He said the U.S. was looking at a new approach, perhaps involving military force, to resolve the crisis on the Korean peninsula.

Earlier this week, the U.S. National Security Council reportedly completed its review of North Korean policy options, which Trump ordered just after taking office. The review was said to be completed in a hurry, in time for Trump's meeting with Xi at his estate at Mar-a-Lago, Florida.

If, as Trump himself suggested, the U.S. is not ruling out a unilateral military strike on North Korea's nuclear facilities, the issues of trade and currency may well be eclipsed at this week's summit -- that is, unless all the topics and themes converge.

Trump is, if anything, unpredictable, and his dealings with foreign leaders largely transactional. It is not hard to see Trump proposing a deal to go easy on using America's anti-dumping laws and tariff relief against Chinese products in exchange for Beijing's agreement to further tighten the economic screws on North Korea. If reining in Pyongyang's nuclear program is Trump's top and most urgent priority, then securing "market economy" status for China at the World Trade Organization is Xi's priority.

Trump's other "stick" to gain Xi's cooperation on North Korea is the threat of "secondary sanctions" aimed at Chinese companies doing business with North Korea that also have dealings with the U.S. But as Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at the University of California San Diego, noted in a blog, the main problem is identifying the specific Chinese companies trading with North Korea that would be vulnerable to American pressure.

Deal sweeteners

Of course Trump is known to like easy wins -- a few thousand jobs here, a promise of a major manufacturing or infrastructure project there. Xi likely knows that, and is certain to come to Mar-a-Lago with a few sweeteners, including perhaps some vague offer on taking steps to whittle away at America's current $500 billion trade deficit over time. Trump may get enough to claim some sort of "victory" when he tweets out to his 100 million followers.

But the real friction will be over how to handle Pyongyang. And there, Washington and Beijing have two very different world views.

China still sees North Korea as an ally -- a troublesome one, to be sure, but the only bulwark between China's border and some 25,000 American troops based in South Korea. One could aptly describe the relationship between the two countries as "frenemies."

Despite recent tensions, older Chinese still remember when they fought side-by-side with North Koreans against American troops, in what is still deemed by Chinese as "the war to resist U.S. aggression and aid North Korea." Some elderly Chinese can still be roused to a patriotic fervor by the old battle hymns extolling the virtues of the "volunteers" who battled the American troops.

Only in March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeated Mao Zedong's famous formulation, that China and North Korea remained "as close as lips and teeth." In the Chinese view, it is American militarism that is to blame for the crisis on the Korean peninsula, and Pyongyang is mainly acting out of insecurity. Beijing is urging direct talks between the two sides.

China officially backs the goal of global nuclear nonproliferation. But it is not the highest priority, and certainly not higher than its stated policy of "noninterference" in any other country's internal affairs. As a foreign ministry official once told me, when China is asked about another country developing nuclear weapons: "Our first question is, 'Are they pointing them at us?'"

Moreover, China fears chaos and a massive refugee influx that would inevitably follow the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang.

Beijing believes the current United Nations-mandated sanctions against Pyongyang are sufficient, targeting mainly the raw materials needed for missile research. China may agree to some tightening of sanctions, but most certainly not to a complete cut-off of aid and trade. China now accounts for an estimated 90% of North Korea's merchandise trade.

"Worries that Chinese participation in sanctions against North Korea would cause hostility between China and North Korea are unnecessary," the Communist Party-owned tabloid newspaper, Global Times, wrote in an editorial late March. "As long as China doesn't completely close its border with North Korea, doesn't implement a full embargo on food and necessities, and doesn't pose a direct threat to the survival of the Korean regime, China and North Korea will not come to the point of confronting each other despite their cold relations."

So Trump is going to Mar-a-Lago looking for concrete Chinese actions to ratchet up the pressure on North Korea, and threatening to go it alone if Xi balks. And Xi will be looking to cooperate on bilateral economic issues to hold off a potential trade war, but is unlikely to bend much when it comes to using its economic influence on Pyongyang.

That is not the recipe for a summit success. It has all the makings of a stalemate. And the future stability of the region is at stake.

Keith B. Richburg, a former foreign editor of The Washington Post, is director of Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Center.

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