What Can Trump’s China Visit Really Achieve?

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Summary:
The American president may be hoping to get more cooperation on North Korea during his meeting with China’s Xi Jinping on Wednesday—but there’s a fundamental divergence in how the two sides see the problem. Trump may be hoping to persuade his Chinese counterpart to finally pull the plug on North Korea by cutting all economic ties and thus forcing Pyongyang to face the ultimate risk of regime collapse. But in China’s case, this is likely to be a dead end.
The U.S. and China differ over whether international efforts should focus on coercive pressure or diplomatic overture. Washington accuses Pyongyang of cheating on every agreement ever reached, but Beijing rejects the view that Pyongyang bears the sole responsibility for previous diplomatic failures. As a result, when Washington rejects any deal short of complete denuclearization, and dismisses Pyongyang’s proposals of suspending nuclear and missile tests as tactics for buying time, Beijing believes that Pyongyang can be a reasonable negotiating partner.
Furthermore, Beijing believes Washington does not know what it is asking for in demanding an embargo on Pyongyang’s foreign income, fuel, and other key supplies. Such an embargo could not only threaten the survival of the North Korean regime, but the critical issue is how Pyongyang would react in a desperate situation. Based on the Chinese understanding of North Korea, instead of simply backing down, Pyongyang is much more likely to ramp up its provocative activities and further escalate the risk of war.
What Can Trump’s China Visit Really Achieve?
The American president may have expected to use his meeting with China’s Xi Jinping on Wednesday to press China to “do more” to address the North Korean nuclear threat. As the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party has just concluded, securing Xi’s place at the top of Chinese politics for at least the next five years, many analysts believe Xi now has more latitude to address the North Korean crisis and to take tougher measures against Pyongyang. In particular, Trump may be hoping to use this opportunity to persuade his Chinese counterpart to finally pull the plug on North Korea by cutting all economic ties and thus forcing Pyongyang to face the ultimate risk of regime collapse. Indeed, in South Korea ahead of his China visit, he called on all countries to cease trade with North Korea. But in China’s case, this is likely to be a dead end. The gap between the Chinese and American views on North Korea is too deep and fundamental, and any illusion it can be bridged in a relatively short period of time through further pressuring Beijing is only setting the two major powers on a path to collision with each other.
The U.S. and China differ over whether international efforts should focus on coercive pressure or diplomatic overture. In large part, this results from their differing views on the nature of the North Korean regime and its trustworthiness as a negotiating partner. Washington and Beijing have genuinely divergent interpretations about Pyongyang’s past behaviors and about what caused the previous negotiations with Pyongyang to fail. Washington accuses Pyongyang of cheating on every agreement ever reached, but Beijing rejects the view that Pyongyang bears the sole responsibility for previous diplomatic failures. As a result, when Washington rejects any deal short of complete denuclearization, and dismisses Pyongyang’s proposals of suspending nuclear and missile tests as tactics for buying time, Beijing believes that a political solution starting with such a freeze still exists and that Pyongyang can be a reasonable negotiating partner.
Furthermore, Beijing believes Washington does not know what it is asking for in demanding an embargo on Pyongyang’s foreign income, fuel, and other key supplies. Even if such an embargo could threaten the survival of the North Korean regime, the critical issue is how Pyongyang would react in a desperate situation. Based on the Chinese understanding of North Korea, instead of simply backing down, Pyongyang is much more likely to ramp up its provocative activities and further escalate the risk of war. Believing its own resolve is greater than Washington’s, Pyongyang probably figures it has the upper hand in brinksmanship. If this happens, would the international community—including the United States—have a good counter strategy? Could we get out of the crisis safely without triggering a war? Beijing does not think so.
Even if the international community can somehow overthrow the North Korean regime peacefully, Beijing and Washington would still have fundamental disagreements on an acceptable end state on the Korean peninsula. The two countries have never discussed this question formally, due to political sensitivity; academic discussions at the unofficial level are still preliminary, with positions far apart. The U.S. may not trust the North Koreans as negotiating partners; Chinese mistrust of American intentions is just as profound. Chinese experts frequently express the concern that somehow Washington and Pyongyang might suddenly set aside their disputes through secret talks and collude to work against a common strategic concern—Beijing. This may sound unimaginable to American experts, but it points to the extreme difficulty of reassuring China about what happens in the case where the peninsula’s status quo fundamentally changes. Thus, China has its own reasons for declining to throw its weight behind U.S. initiatives, beyond propping up a troublesome ally or warding off potential chaos on its border.
Source: The Atlantic, Tong Zhao, November 8, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters