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View more articles by Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
After a very rocky start on his North Korea diplomacy, including a bombastic speech before the UN General Assembly in September 2017 where he declared that “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission,” President Trump had a sudden change of heart.
By the fall of 2018, Trump was singing a decidedly different tune, even declaring to an American audience that he and his odd couple North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Un had “fallen in love” at their Singapore summit. The President had apparently come to the delayed realization that the path to any major diplomatic legacy for himself, similar to a Nixon-Mao or Reagan-Gorbachev moment, lay along the road to Pyongyang.
Trump seemed to instinctively recognize at the beginning of his administration that any major breakthrough with North Korea on denuclearization would necessarily require the good offices of Pyongyang’s sole long-standing ally, China, and its leader, Xi Jinping.
A headline in the New York Times immediately following the first Trump-Xi summit at Mar-a-Lago in the spring of 2017 read “Trump Says China Will Get Better Trade Deal if It Solves ‘North Korea Problem.’” In the over two years since that very friendly summit, however, U.S.-China relations have gone into a deep freeze just as the personal diplomacy between Trump and Kim blossomed.
On August 23rd, the U.S.-China trade war reached a new boiling point. President Trump, apparently reacting to the new $75 billion in tit-for-tat tariffs that Beijing imposed in retaliation for his own tariff hikes, publicly referred to Xi as an “enemy.”
The President further tweeted that “Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing … your companies HOME and making your products in the USA.”
Trump’s trade adviser, Peter Navarro, at the same time referred to China in a Fox Business interview as “a bad actor.” Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief at China’s state-run Global Times, tweeted back that “China has ammunition to fight back. The US side will feel the pain.”
A perhaps overly confident Trump recently declared himself “the chosen one” to deal with the China trade issue. In the escalating trade war, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) recently reported that a proposed 10 percent tariff on $300 billion in Chinese exports, to be imposed on September 1st, will be delayed for certain products until December 15th (reportedly due to the holiday shopping season) – but will still take effect for other products.
Beijing announced, in retaliation, that it was suspending U.S. agricultural product purchases – apparently trying to hit the Trump Administration where it hurts in electoral politics by punishing farmers in key swing states like Iowa and Wisconsin.
So the question is: can Trump pull the North Korea rabbit out of the hat before his re-election campaign while dissing North Korea’s long-time benefactor?
Even Kim Jong Un must be aware of the old adage that “you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
Kim Jong Un, of course, has demonstrated no great affection for the Chinese elders in Beijing. He brutally executed Beijing’s man in his court, Uncle Jang Song Thaek, in 2013. Then the Korean People’s Army (KPA) held a shooting exercise with panda photos when Xi in 2014 chose to visit Seoul before coming to Pyongyang (where Xi only belatedly arrived in 2019.)
Still, Kim is acutely aware that Washington has so far steadfastly refused to ease sanctions which are reportedly squeezing his regime. He knows that his economic lifeline for fuel, foodstuffs, and weaponry runs across the border from China. Continued sanctions are seen as one of the key reasons for the DPRK’s renewal of short-range missile tests this summer.
Pyongyang’s application of provocative pressure has left Beijing – and Trump for that matter – largely without comment.
Current further action on sanctions is included in the Otto Warmbier Banking Restrictions Involving North Korea (BRINK) Act, named for the University of Virginia student who died after being held captive for over a year in North Korea.
Senators Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Toomey (R-Penn.) issued a press release on June 27th announcing the Senate passage of the legislation “within the Senate’s FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)…Their legislation is designed to offer foreign banks and firms a stark choice: continue business with North Korea or maintain access to the U.S. financial system. It imposes mandatory sanctions on the foreign banks and companies that facilitate illicit financial transactions for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
So Kim Jong Un’s hope that cozying up to Trump will lead to near-term sanctions relief may well be stymied by legislators seeking to make a firm statement following Otto Warmbier’s tragic death.
And that is where Beijing comes into play. NBC News last year carried the headline “China eases economic pressure on North Korea, undercutting the Trump admin(istration).” The September 5, 2018 article noted that “NBC News has learned (that) China has reopened legal and illegal trade with North Korea, flouting sanctions by buying North Korean coal.” Even Kim Jong Un must be aware of the old adage that “you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
What incentive would Xi Jinping have at present to help shepherd along Donald Trump’s nuclear diplomacy…?
The South China Morning Post declared around the same time that President Trump himself had taken note of China’s lack of enthusiasm for his détente with Pyongyang. The paper reported on August 30, 2018 that Trump had accused Beijing of putting North Korea “under tremendous pressure” to stymie his negotiations.
President Trump further tweeted that “We also know that China is providing North Korea with considerable aid, including money, fuel, fertilizer and various other commodities. This is not helpful!” Beijing’s recorded response was that this was “absurd logic.”
However, with North Korea sitting right next door on its northeast border, China has every incentive to keep the Pyongyang regime afloat, even given the personal disdain of its leadership for the young upstart Kim Jong Un.
Added to that, Trump has increasingly been playing hardball with Beijing on other contentious issues in addition to trade, including Taiwan arms sales and lately on the continuing crisis in Hong Kong.
In what may be an attempt to put further pressure on Beijing, the Trump administration recently announced the formal approval of the long-delayed $8 billion sale of F-16 C/D fighter jets to Taiwan, under the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act.
And President Trump, who had previously remained largely silent on the ongoing crisis this summer caused by pro-democracy demonstrations in the Asian economic hub, Hong Kong, finally came forward.
Tying China’s reaction to events in Hong Kong to any potential trade deal, Trump declared that Beijing must respond “humanely” to the protests. He also suggested a “personal meeting” with Xi to discuss the crisis, according to an August 14th article in the Wall Street Journal.
Beijing responded by calling on the American President to honor an earlier “hands-off” stance on Hong Kong, according to the South China Morning Post.
Beijing, facing its bleakest economic statistics in over two decades, is no doubt further negatively impacted by its current trade war with Washington. With the sale of new fighter jets to Taiwan, and with President Trump offering to mediate (or “meddle in,” according to Beijing) the “internal affair” of Hong Kong, what incentive would Xi Jinping have at present to help shepherd along Donald Trump’s nuclear diplomacy with Beijing’s North Korean ally?
One thing is for certain: Xi Jinping is not about to join Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in forwarding a letter to the Nobel Committee suggesting that the American President be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for opening talks with Kim Jong Un.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: KCNA