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Donald Trump or his administration may have trouble answering the blatant contradiction of wanting President Xi Jinping’s China to “help with North Korea” while blockading Chinese exports to the US. Photo: AP

Trump will need more than rhetoric to deal with North Korea and China

Donald Kirk says while trade with China may not be the top issue for the new US president keen on destroying Obama’s legacy, Kim Jong-un is unlikely to give him time to consider his options

Donald Trump
Donald Trump faces a crisis in northeast Asia that’s likely to test his willpower far beyond the rhetoric that he’s been spewing for months. Quite soon we may learn how much he can really do to stymie the threat of North Korean posturing, and deal with America’s yawning trade deficit with China.

That’s a tall order, involving two seemingly different but closely related issues. The US president-elect may soon discover that he can’t have it both ways. If North Korean leader Kim Jong-un orders a test of a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the United States, how can or will Trump stop him?

Watch: Reactions to North Korea’s claim on missile test

After Kim indicated a test was imminent, Trump famously tweeted: “It won’t happen” – but nobody’s certain what he meant.

Was he saying that Korean scientists and technicians still do not have the finesse to fix a warhead to a missile, much less direct it to a target? Or was he hinting that he might order a strike on the launch pad before such a missile got off the ground?

Those are questions with which Trump will be grappling, almost from the moment he sits down in the Oval Office of the White House. He will also have to consider China’s relationships with North and South Korea – and with the US. He has already upset Beijing by tweeting, “China won’t help with North Korea” while “taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the US in totally one-sided trade….” Rubbing it in with sardonic understatement, he added: “Nice.”

Donald Trump slams China for not helping contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions

These tweets are refreshing as clues to Trump’s thinking, without going into lengthy statements through lower-level officials. No other national leader has resorted to that system of modern electronic communication. In a few words, he’s able to communicate directly with masses of people.

Hastily written tweets, however, carry the risk of misunderstanding – and may require a lot of explaining. Trump or his administration may have trouble answering for one blatant contradiction. How can he expect China to “help with North Korea” while blockading China’s exports to the US? Much as he may wish to punish China with protective tariffs for what he sees as unfair practices, including currency manipulation, President Xi Jinping (習近平) may be in no mood to bear down on North Korea if Trump were to carry out his threats of a tariff wall.

Watch: What Trump’s trade war with China would mean

The Chinese, however, should have breathing space before coming to grips with Trump’s threats. He’s got too much to do “on the first day” in office as he sets about destroying the legacy of Barack Obama’s presidency. Trump is far more concerned about domestic issues, notably the Affordable Care Act that Obama views as his greatest achievement, and he will also be preoccupied with blocking illegal immigration across the border with Mexico and tightly screening Muslims coming to America.

Nor does trade with China rank as the most important foreign policy issue. He’s likely to be still more perplexed by the stand-off with Russia that he’s inheriting from the last gasps of the Obama administration.

Vladimir Putin, then prime minister of Russia, with then ExxonMobil president and CEO Rex Tillerson during the signing of a strategic partnership agreement with Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft, in Sochi on August 30, 2011. Photo: AFP

With ExxonMobil boss Tillerson as top US diplomat, Trump’s new approach is ready to roll

Unlike Xi, Russian President Vladimir Putin has formed a special friendship with both Trump and Rex Tillerson, Trump’s appointee as secretary of state, who has had dealings with Russia as the ExxonMobil boss.

The hacking of personal email accounts of Democratic Party officials and political figures, however, may test these bonds. The Democrats are convinced the Russians wanted Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton, who might have come down hard on Russia had she won. Trump scoffs at such talk as an absurd attempt at rationalising her defeat.

What to do about Russia will be a more difficult issue as the spotlight shifts to countries in eastern Europe, including Ukraine, and the Middle East, notably Iran, on which the US and Russia view one another with suspicion, if not hostility. Differences are probably worse over North Korea.

Pyongyang may not give Trump the luxury of time to consider military versus diplomatic options. He may have to act fast in the face of more threats – and possible tests. Ominously, Kim may make Trump confront his first foreign policy crisis.

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: North Korea, China will test Trump rhetoric