Opinion: Donald Trump and Xi Jinping are at an impasse on how to deal with North Korea
Both sides have largely unrealist expectations of each other, but at least they are talking
Xi Jinping’s meeting with America’s volatile new president promises some measure of clarity as to how the North Korean issue will play out between Beijing and Washington in the coming years.
By now, most readers will have formed strong views about US threats of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, or the unavoidable controversy over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system and its attendant strategic and commercial anxieties.
But less clear than either of these rather binary debates are questions of how the United States will seek to push Chinese sanctions enforcement and trade with North Korea. How far will Trump’s government tighten the screws against China in retaliation for perceived sanctions violations or questionable transactions with North Korea by Chinese firms?
Trump’s unusually arrogant, thrusting approach to just about everything he does naturally attracts attention. (Consider the fact that making Xi wait one hour for him to arrive from Washington was probably not the most offensive thing he did on Thursday).
When it comes to North Korea policy, Trump was true to form, making headlines in a Financial Times interview whose rough words for China were probably more reflective of Trump’s poor preparation and incontinent approach to briefing data than a finely honed new US approach to the related issues.
Fortunately for everyone, there is more to life than Donald Trump’s mouth or his Twitter account, and the executive branch is but one significant player when it comes to the implementation of North Korea and China policy.
Even without a great deal of input from a shrunken State Department, there are other places to look for clues.
For these reasons, what has been happening in the halls of Congress with respect to Sino-North Korean relations is potentially more significant than Trump’s mostly content-free bluster.
The Republican majority in the US House of Representatives has been problematic for Donald Trump with respect to his health care legislation, but has not resisted the President on foreign policy, even amid an ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
The Republicans in the House have not appeared prone to rebel against Trump’s perceived mandate to recalibrate the US relationship with China, and if anything, appear prone to pushing for an even tougher approach.
The new Congress has been quite swift in developing tougher approaches to Chinese trade with North Korea.
A foreign affairs subcommittee headed by Republican Ed Royce has put together a number of key changes to the North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, a bill whose title does not name China but whose impact would largely be to put pressure on Chinese firms and tighten restrictions on Chinese interactions with North Korea.
The bill seeks to punish entities involved in Chinese fuel exports to North Korea (beyond some minimum amount for humanitarian purposes), cut off North Korean fabric exports, reduce the number of North Korean workers in China, and punish any “operators of foreign sea ports and air ports” that have failed to adequately inspect any ship or aircraft originating from North Korea.
The bill also identifies Dalian and Dandong as key ports of trade that need closer watching by Washington for transit of illegal goods into North Korea.
There appears to be bipartisan support in Washington for more “secondary sanctions” against Chinese banks and businesses doing business with an ever-expanding list of North Korean firms and state actors.
Advocates of this approach have been unimpressed by China’s cut-off of North Korean coal exports, and the ongoing prosecution of the Hongxiang firm that allegedly supported Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.
There is little sympathy for Beijing’s inability to fully police every interaction with North Korea, nor is anyone in Washington able to see Xi’s calls against corruption and for transparency in Liaoning as statements with which they could potentially align.
Instead, Congress assumes that there are multiple firms filling Hongxiang’s shoes and that Beijing can do a great deal more when it comes to cutting off such firms before they unduly enhance North Korea’s capacity to carry out missile and nuclear tests.
Advocates of the “secondary sanctions” approach rarely, if ever, attempt to discern what China’s countermeasures or response would be to the implementation of such measures. Perhaps they have not been reading the Global Times, the foreign affairs tabloid run by People’s Daily, on the subject.
On March 17, Global Times noted that the new US diplomatic team clearly wanted to convince China to change its overall profile of trade with North Korea and “intentionally lose the game” of its extensive web of economic cooperation with Pyongyang. If China puts up too many barriers to trade with North Korea, it could lose yet more leverage with the country.
Anyone who travels along the frontier with North Korea could tell them that it seems clear that China will not be moving in such a direction. Even without one iota of North Korean interest in the “One Belt, One Road” framework, the central government will continue to finance ambitious infrastructural developments along the frontier.
In Xi’s dream world, Donald Trump would wake up in the Florida sunshine and engage in a tweetstorm supporting China’s push for “dual suspension” on the Korean peninsula, cancelling military drills in return for a moratorium on North Korean testing, and then promising to negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea.
In reality, of course, there is no chance of the US or North Korea taking up the Chinese “dual suspension” approach, and Congress will continue to push forward with sanctions approaches that will pressure China.
In spite of its crudeness, Trump’s pre-summit call for more Chinese pressure on North Korea was completely predictable. But on March 22, Global Times stated unambiguously that even a sixth North Korean nuclear test would not result in China’s shutting down normal trade with North Korea; the border would remain open.
Xi and Trump are therefore at a kind of impasse when it comes to how to deal with North Korea.
Trump’s team appears to be bound to absolutist positions, unimpressed with China’s work to both vote for sanctions and enforce them. And China is stuck with its decision in 2010-11 to support the third-generation hereditary succession in North Korea.
But at least the two leaders are talking, even as Kim Jong-un continues his incessant work of military development and Congress keeps working to give Trump levers he can use against Xi.
Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds