When Chinese President Xi Jinping sits down with Donald Trump in Hamburg this week, he’ll confront a growing rift on how to rein in North Korea. Xi’s solution might be to put the onus back on the U.S.
The meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit comes amid the U.S. president’s growing displeasure at what he sees as a lack of Chinese pressure on its ally, especially after Kim Jong Un announced his first test of a missile capable of reaching Alaska. “So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try!” Trump said in a tweet Wednesday.
Still, Trump’s angst — the U.S. is threatening trade ties with countries that do business with Pyongyang — may not have the desired effect of getting China to tighten the economic noose. As much as China frets about Kim’s nuclear ambitions, bigger concerns for Xi are the prospects for military conflict on the Korean Peninsula or a chaotic collapse of the regime.
That could see the Chinese leader double down on his argument that talks are the best alternative to cycles of sanctions that have done little to deter Kim’s nuclear gambit — and that discussions should start with direct U.S.-North Korea negotiations.
“The current sanctions approach that has been conducted in a piecemeal fashion has proven a failure,” Shi Yongming, an associate research fellow at the Foreign Ministry-run China Institute of International Studies in Beijing. “Right now, the most reasonable approach is to persuade the Americans and North Korea to talk directly.”
China’s concern about pushing Kim too hard shows how Trump, for all his tweeting, is grappling with the limits of his strategy on North Korea. He must now decide whether the test, coupled with the death last month of an American college student who had been imprisoned in North Korea, means giving up on collaboration and more directly confronting Beijing.
Speaking at a briefing in Warsaw on Thursday, Trump said the U.S. is considering “pretty severe things” on North Korea and “will confront” it very strongly for its behavior. Still, he added that did not mean the U.S. would indeed act against Pyongyang, saying he did not draw red lines like his predecessor Barack Obama.
Xi’s preference for dialogue doesn’t mean he isn’t worried about the growing military prowess of a country with a shared 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) border. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing expressed “grave concern” after Tuesday’s launch and called on nations involved to “stay calm and exercise restraint.”
China has said its ultimate goal is also to get Kim to lay down his nuclear weapons. But Xi reaffirmed his preference for talks this week, when he issued a joint statement with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow urging a return to “dialogue without preconditions.” They vowed to “work together and establish a comprehensive and effective security mechanism in Northeast Asia as early as possible.”
A push for direct negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea would represent a shift for China, which has long sought a seat at the table. While China has resisted U.S. demands to cut off vital food and energy exports to Kim’s regime, it has supported rounds of United Nations sanctions to force him back to the negotiating table.
The U.S. favors restarting the “six-party talks” — including also Japan, Russia and South Korea — that North Korea abandoned in 2009, if the regime agrees to halt its weapons program. Trump has suggested he might meet with Kim, but only under unspecified conditions. All but North Korea will be represented at the G-20 summit starting Friday in Hamburg.
“All North Korea wants to do is to talk to the U.S.,” Andrew Gilholm, director of North Asia analysis at Control Risks Group, said in Seoul. “There has to be a deal with the U.S. That is going to be harder because North Korea is more and more pushing acceptance of their nuclear status before they will even talk.”
Such a suggestion might not go over well with Trump. Even before Tuesday’s missile launch, Xi was complaining about “negative elements” affecting ties, after the U.S. signaled a harder line against on everything from trade to human rights.
After the missile test, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged global action against nations involved in “aiding and abetting” the regime. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, warned Wednesday that North Korea’s actions were “quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution.”
“They have very different approaches toward the North Korean issue,” said Zhang Baohui, director of Lingnan University’s Center for Asian Pacific Studies in Hong Kong. “China and the U.S. are actually on a collision course, if Trump does shift to a tougher approach.”
“The recent ICBM test by North Korea may lead to grave instability in Sino-U.S. relations,” Zhang said.
For Kim, nuclear weapons may insure his regime against suffering the fates of governments in Iraq and Libya. One was listed alongside North Korea in former President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.” The other fell in a U.S.-supported rebellion less than a decade after giving up its nuclear weapons.
Military action against North Korea would be far more dangerous, since Kim could launch conventional attacks against thousands of U.S. personnel and millions of civilians in South Korea and Japan. Each missile advancement raises the stakes for American civilians, as well.
Yang Xiyu, a former Chinese negotiator for the six-party negotiations, said Trump’s boasts about “China-U.S. togetherness” might have made Kim more provocative. North Korean state media have in recent months taken swipes at China for “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” and its “inhumane” sanctions.
“There is a perception that Pyongyang is a card Beijing holds to wield influence over the U.S.,” Yang said. “But it’s actually becoming such a big strategic liability to China, that Beijing’s seeking what it thinks is the most feasible way to handle a hot potato.”