As the US and China sit down for a diplomatic and security dialogue this week, North Korea will be on everyone’s mind – even when the top diplomats are talking about something else. The Trump administration has not only pushed dealing with the North Korean regime to the top of bilateral issues, tying cooperation on it to other matters, but the talks this week also come after the death of a US college student following his detention in North Korea.
The president set the stage for the meetings via Twitter with a thinly veiled warning to Beijing that they had better step up pressure on Kim Jong-un, or else: “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!”
Many in the Washington foreign policy establishment think that Trump has been played by Xi Jinping and a team of seasoned diplomats in Beijing. They note that the State Department is understaffed, with the Trump administration failing to fill many spaces, and that the incredible task of preparing for Trump’s first meeting with Xi was undertaken by the president’s son in law, who has no China experience to speak of.
The list of grievances among those in the Washington China-watching sphere are many. For one, the president’s off-the-cuff style means that his statements and actions will never be made with due consideration for how they will be perceived by the Chinese. How could they be? How much does Trump know about what makes Chinese leaders tick? Americans who have spent their entire lives studying the way China makes policy will tell you it takes just that – an entire lifetime – just to begin to understand.
More specifically, Trump has made a pretty big shopping list of concessions for Xi to take home with him ahead of the all-important party congress coming up. He started by declaring friendship with Xi upon their first meeting, in itself a win for China as he did so without getting anything meaningful in return. He proceeded to apparently tie a host of bilateral issues to China’s cooperation on dealing with North Korea. The president himself specifically indicated this regarding trade, but it may include the White House’s toning down of rhetoric regarding the South China Sea. The secretaries of defense and state only recently stressed the US will work to keep the status quo in contested waters there. Despite declaring that human rights abuses are of great importance in Cuba and North Korea, the issue has been dropped off the list of bilateral issues to discuss with China.
The Chinese have good reason to celebrate. As speculation about the Thucydides trap continues to buzz in the background, US-China relations are at a high-point not seen for some time. Not to mention, it comes after great uncertainty at the outset of the Trump administration, when the president called into question the One China policy, part of the very foundation on which US-China relations are based. His campaign rhetoric of labeling Beijing a currency manipulator and levying hefty tariffs on everything imported from China also took several months to evaporate.
Beijing can take credit for their success in handling Trump. They have treated him with kid gloves, including in the Chinese press, interestingly, in contrast to how he is treated by Western media. Xi Jinping visited Mar-a-Lago with a broad smile and a series of modest trade concessions, some of which were in the works during the Obama administration, but then saved for this rainy day, such as is the case with the decision to open China to US beef imports.
The deals were hailed as a huge success that averted a potentially disastrous trade war, despite the fact that they avoided bigger trade issues such as steel, aluminum and auto parts, as well as the tech industry. Chinese giants such as Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu owe much of their success to outright protectionism, which has yet to be reciprocated in any way by the US.
So here we are. That whole big list of things that Xi Jinping is smiling about? “The lord giveth and taketh away.” While academics talk of Trump’s ham-handed approach to China, with seemingly minimal strategic calculus, that doesn’t mean that China will always have such an easy time dealing with the man. One thing can’t be denied: Trump can’t abide losing.
We should be careful not to read too much into Trump’s Tweet that implied China has failed– it is a classic Art of the Deal move to put more pressure on China to act in good faith on commitments regarding North Korea. He did the exact same thing ahead of the Mar-a-Lago meeting, Tweeting “The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits … and job losses. American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives,” only to become fast friends with Xi.
We also shouldn’t underestimate China’s ability to handle Trump. Those crafting China’s US policy have no doubt read the Art of the Deal, and probably everything else Trump has written. But China may be overconfident after their success so far. The timing of Otto Warmbier’s death will make Trump eager for a demonstrable win on North Korea – something that is nearly impossible under the current conditions.
China is likely not going to move much on this issue right away. Beijing’s feelings that they are doing a lot on this issue are only reinforced by the White House’s insistence that this is the case. Trump’s passive aggressive Tweet even noted that they are putting in effort. But if they don’t support harsher sanctions on North Korea, they may get a rude awakening from the current Trump-Xi bromance dream.