US President Donald Trump is adopting harder-line policies toward China over Beijing’s unwillingness or inability to stifle what Washington regards as a growing nuclear-missile threat from Pyongyang.
Using social media to signal the shift, Trump tweeted recently that China had not used its economic clout to prevent North Korea from developing long-range missiles.
“Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter,” Trump said. “So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try!”
On July 4, North Korea conducted the first flight test of a new intercontinental-range ballistic missile, one that had never been seen before. The North Koreans hailed the test as a major step forward in developing the capability to target what their state media called “American bastards”.
The missile test was a major setback for the Trump administration. Relations between Washington and Beijing appeared to be improving after the April summit meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Lieutenant-General H R McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, said during a conference June 28 that China at the April summit had recognized that the North Korean problem was not limited to the United States but was also “a big problem for them”.
McMaster also said Chinese leaders had acknowledged during the summit that China has “a great deal of control” over North Korea mainly through the “coercive power of their economic relations”.
The Chinese leadership also agreed that denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula was the “only acceptable objective”, he said.
McMaster said the United States had to begin preparing “all options” for dealing with North Korea. “The president has made clear to us that he will not accept a nuclear power in North Korea and a threat that can target the United States, and target the American population,” he said.
The three points disclosed by the national security adviser have never been acknowledged in official Chinese statements nor reflected in Foreign Ministry or Communist Party of China organs.
A White House aide said the Mar-a-Lago talks had prompted hopes that China would be willing to tackle the North Korean threat.
Signs that North Korea may have put off a seventh underground nuclear test blast also prompted hopes in the White House that China was pressuring North Korea. But less than a week after McMaster’s comments, the North Koreans unveiled what they are calling a Hwasong-14 – the regime’s first intercontinental ballistic missile – fired from a road-mobile launcher from an airfield north of Pyongyang. The missile landed in the Sea of Japan after a 37-minute flight – the longest flight test by the North Koreans.
“This act demonstrates that North Korea poses a threat to the United States and our allies,” said Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis, “and we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies and to use the full range of capabilities at our disposal against the growing threat from North Korea.”
Davis said the missile test was “escalatory”, “destabilizing”, and “also dangerous”.
“This missile flew through busy airspace used by commercial airliners,” he said. “It flew into space. It landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, and an area that’s used by commercial and fishing vessels. All of this completely uncoordinated.”
After the April summit, the United States put on hold a major arms-sale package to Taiwan. But in late June the US State Department announced that a new US$1.4 billion package had been approved for the island that Beijing regards as a breakaway province.
The weapons to be transferred include technical support for early-warning radar, anti-radiation missiles, torpedoes, and components for SM-2 missiles.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert defended the sale as allowed under the US law that mandates providing Taiwan with defensive arms.
But China denounced the pending arms sale as violating an agreement reached at the summit. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the sale would harm US-China ties. “US wrong moves go against the consensus achieved at Mar-a-Lago,” he said.
Beijing also was angered by passage of a US warship within 12 nautical miles of a disputed island in the South China Sea. The guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem made the close pass to Triton Island in the Paracel Island chain in the northern part of the sea on July 2. A Chinese warship shadowed the Stethem.
The islands there are claimed by China, Vietnam and several other states and have been the location of a Chinese-Vietnamese confrontations in the past. China called the voyage near Triton island, part of what China calls the Xisha Islands, a “serious political and military provocation”.
The incident was the second time under the Trump administration that a warship had sailed close to a disputed island in the area. In May, the destroyer USS Dewy passed within 12 nautical miles of the disputed Mischief Reef, part of the Spratlys in the southern South China Sea. China also protested that action.
Beijing’s policy toward Pyongyang has changed little publicly. Beijing allows some official commentators to question whether China and North Korea will remain allies if another nuclear test is conducted.
Still, the Chinese government and military have shown no signs of abrogating the broad mutual defense treaty that calls for Chinese military intervention after any attack on North Korea.
The renewed mention by the Trump administration of keeping open military options against North Korea are clear signs that the initial hopes China will work together with the United States have been dashed.
China, for its part, continues to promote a proposal that calls on the United States to cancel all military exercises with South Korea in exchange for a halt in North Korean missile and nuclear tests.
Asked if the US has any plans to change its military exercise schedule in South Korea, Davis, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters: “No we’re not.”
A White House official said the Chinese proposal was a non-starter. “We’ve tried that in the past and it didn’t work,” the official said.
The latest North Korean missile test will likely lead to greater unilateral US efforts to resolve the growing nuclear and missile threats from Pyongyang. And the prospects of success will be lessened by the lack of Chinese participation.