With an unstable Trump and Kim Jong-un, can China stop tensions erupting over North Korea?
Kevin Rafferty says it may be down to Beijing to display ‘coolheadedness’, as Pyongyang and the Trump White House have yet to show any intent to dial down the threats
Foreign Minister Wang Yi ( 王毅 ) advised Rex Tillerson, the visiting US secretary of state, to “stay coolheaded” in the face of increasing tension in Asia, particularly on the Korean peninsula.
But the advice was too late and addressed to the wrong person. The worsening situation requires more than cool heads to avert disaster.
On his first foreign trip, Tillerson expostulated in South Korea that US patience with the North was running out and a pre-emptive military strike was not off the table. After meeting Wang for “a very extensive exchange” on the escalating tensions on the peninsula, he said China and the US had agreed to work together to stop Pyongyang making further provocations.
The next day, as Tillerson met President Xi Jinping (習近平), the North’s state news agency boasted that leader Kim Jong-un had overseen a “great leap forward” in its rocket industry, with the test of a powerful new engine. Pyongyang suggested that the engine could put a satellite into orbit; but it could also be used to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles at the US.
Tillerson reportedly told Xi that President Donald Trump wants to “enhance understanding” with China and that the two countries could have a “cooperative relationship”. Xi responded that cooperation was “the only correct option”.
But Trump himself cut some of the ground from under Tillerson by tweeting: “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!”
North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been "playing" the United States for years. China has done little to help!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 17, 2017
For all Tillerson’s high-profile meetings, including with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan, US commentators are asking whether he is an empty suit in terms of policymaking under Trump.
Tillerson has been notable by his absence in Trump’s top-level meetings with foreign leaders, and tamely acquiesced in the president’s proposed savage 28 per cent cut in funding for the State Department, which directs foreign policy. In an ironic statement – given that Trump demanded a huge increase in defence spending – Tillerson claimed: “As time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the US will be directly engaged in.”
It’s especially ironic since Tillerson seemed to be hinting that if North Korea did not behave, the military option would certainly be on the table. Indeed, the obvious options that have not been tried in trying to bring North Korea in from the cold are: military action to smash the nuclear facilities, or making friends with the Kim dynasty.
Watch: North Korea fires missiles into sea off Japan
Trump, unfortunately, is not listening to anyone’s advice, least of all to stay coolheaded. The president has spent much of his time tweeting and protesting on incidental issues.
In addition, Trump’s White House is torn by rivalry between the right-wing Republican mainstream and the darker view of his principal adviser Steve Bannon that wants to destroy the established world order.
Stanford professor Robert Reich, labour secretary under president Bill Clinton, is worried that Trump is becoming so distracted that he can’t do his job properly. He claims: “The Washington foreign policy establishment – both Republican and Democrat – is deeply worried about what’s happening to American foreign policy, and the worldwide perception of America being loony and rudderless. They think Trump is legitimising far-right movements around the world.”
All of Trump’s comments about North Korea suggest that unless sanctions can be stiffened and made to work in a way they have never worked anywhere before, Trump will be left with the awful military option, which would be deadly dangerous. The North’s weapons are deeply bunkered, widely dispersed in places the Americans do not know about, and based on homegrown technology – so that new ones would quickly be made to replace any destroyed. Would Trump dare to try to take out Kim along with his weapons, a dangerous act of war?
But if Wang wants to give his counsel where it matters, he should talk to an increasingly irresponsible Pyongyang. Kim has stepped up his quest for nuclear weapons that can reach the US. North Korea has conducted 20 missile launches and two nuclear tests in the past year, and five missile launches this month alone – all in defiance of the UN.
It is puzzling because Kim’s own regime could hardly survive any success in putting together a nuclear weapon and a missile that could carry it to the US. That potential nuclear fallout, along with the human and economic misery, and the political mess that would spill all over Asia if Kim falls are the obvious reasons why Beijing hesitates to press Pyongyang too hard.
Beijing naturally prefers uncomfortable co-existence with Kim to regime change that would send refugees fleeing into China, and risk the creation of a united Korea backed by Washington at its doorstep. But Wang could also warn his own president that it is dangerous to get too close to an active volcano.
The problem is that even if China closed loopholes in sanctions on North Korea to make them more effective, they might not work and might enrage Kim. The impending tragedy is that Beijing and Tokyo, and Trump’s Washington, are pursuing increased military spending and calling it defence.
When will political leaders learn that the military option by any one nation threatens to destroy us all? Learning to live with each other is the only way, but that is far from the minds of Kim or Trump, dangerously volcanic blood brothers.
Kevin Rafferty, formerly the Asia editor of the Financial Times, has edited daily newspapers in four Asian countries