By Alan D. Romberg
18 April 2017
Whether measured in terms of a week, a day, a few hours or even ten minutes, while the outcome of the Mar-a-Lago summit between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping cannot yet be characterized as a breakthrough, it certainly was not the acrimonious breakdown that many predicted. From where this observer sits, it was, at the very least, a modest success and perhaps more than that.
Trade had been advertised as the focus of President Trump’s agenda, with threats of high tariffs as well as punishment of China as a currency manipulator headlining the pre-meeting coverage. The American leader also seemed to threaten punitive trade measures if his Chinese counterpart did not agree to take significantly greater steps to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, exercising the unique leverage that Trump asserted China had over North Korea.
Although the two leaders apparently spent a considerable amount of time wrestling with this intractable and increasingly dangerous problem, much of it one-on-one, according to the President’s own account it took only ten minutes for Xi to convince him of how complicated the North Korean issue is for China. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy. … I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea, Trump told the Wall Street Journal. “But it’s not what you would think.”
While Trump and his senior team continued to assert that the US would take whatever steps were necessary to bring North Korea to heel even if China would not—or could not—cooperate, the tone changed dramatically. Having previously cited trade as a lever to wield with China to pressure Beijing into upping the ante with Pyongyang, Trump now spoke the language of inducements, indicating he could sweeten the pot of what the US could offer the PRC in a trade deal. Instead of repeating accusations of “unfair trade” and the “raping” of the US economy, he defended a softening of his position on economic relations, including alleged PRC currency manipulation, on the basis of China’s willingness to turn the screws on North Korea.
Rather than Washington’s previous somewhat petulant (if not inaccurate) accusation that Beijing was protecting Pyongyang, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson now referred to a “real commitment” by both leaders to “work together to see if this cannot be resolved in a peaceful way.” The Secretary went so far as to say that, while Trump had told Xi he would welcome China’s ideas and would be happy to work together, “we understand it creates unique problems for them and challenges and that we would, and are, prepared to chart our own course if this is something China is just unable to coordinate with us.”
The bottom line approach to the DPRK was still that the United States was prepared to work “alone” (which Trump amplified to mean working with countries other than China) to do whatever was necessary to neutralize the North Korean threat. But the post-summit mood music indicated that there was considerable hope Beijing would do more.
The announced PRC suspension of coal imports from the North was obviously taken as a concrete indication that, even if it might not do everything the US wanted, China would do substantially more than in the past to seriously implement UN Security Council sanctions to add pressure on Pyongyang in the hopes of slowing its program and perhaps affecting its calculation of the costs and benefits of continuing its nuclear efforts. (On the other hand, just days after the Mar-a-Lago meeting, China released trade data for the first quarter of 2017, showing an increase over the preceding year.)
From a Chinese perspective, one can identify at least three reasons for Xi to commit to do more in concert with the US and others to lean on Pyongyang. One was that North Korea’s continuing program, including its testing of both nuclear devices and missiles, threatened to bring on precisely the kind of chaos and instability that China feared most. This includes the potential to lead to war, which would threaten not only short-term Chinese interests (e.g., a flood of refugees and the problem of “loose nukes”), but also through eventual unification its long-term strategic interests as well (e.g., allegedly transforming the entire Korean Peninsula into an American bastion from which to confront China). Beijing has also been concerned about the implications of failure to stop Pyongyang’s program for decisions in Seoul, Tokyo and possibly even Taipei about acquiring nuclear weapons as well as becoming part of a regional US-centric ballistic missile defense system.
Another was the growing belief that President Trump would be willing to attack the North preemptively, even without an outright provocation, leading to a similarly dangerous and disadvantageous outcome. It wasn’t that Washington would ignore the high risks of such action, but China saw a growing concern in the United States, both in the Trump administration and more widely, that if North Korea developed an ICBM capable of striking the United States, and succeeded in mating it with a nuclear warhead, this would not only threaten the US directly but potentially lead Pyongyang to think it could effectively deter the US and act in its own neighborhood with impunity, thus challenging fundamental American interests. In this circumstance, arguments that the North would never launch such an attack since it would understand this would be suicidal could be of no avail in stopping US preemption. This evolving perception added a considerable sense of urgency to Chinese statements and actions.
A third reason to cooperate with the US is simply that China wants—and needs—a constructive relationship with the United States. Whether in terms of economics or security or regional and global issues, without at least constructive and possibly cooperative relations, China’s ability to deal effectively with a whole host of issues of enormous significance will be severely limited.
The announced deployment of the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson strike group toward the Peninsula was accompanied by increasingly shrill speculation that the United States was prepared to launch a preemptive attack against the North if Pyongyang set off its sixth nuclear test or possibly conducted a missile test. (Some people judge that the American strike in Syria and use of the MOAB “super-bomb” in Afghanistan were partially intended to reinforce such concerns. I’m skeptical and, when given the opportunity, President Trump did not try to draw any such linkage.)
Although a number of senior American officials had discouraged such speculation about the use of force at this time, and there was no evidence of war preparations on either side (not to mention that Vice President Pence is in the area), continuing statements about consideration of a wide range of US options as well as fire-breathing North Korean threats of retaliation—even preemption—fueled concern. This was especially true in South Korea, as the North’s observance of the 105th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth approached.
As tension grew, in a phone call several days after the summit, President Xi reportedly urged Trump not to resort to force and to adhere to peaceful means to resolve the issue. And after a failed North Korean missile launch on April 15, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi called Secretary Tillerson, presumably to convey the same message (although they also reportedly discussed other steps to advance the overall bilateral relationship as agreed to at the Xi-Trump summit).
While in the near term the US will have to aim for a realistic goal such as a freeze on all nuclear weapons and missile related activities under international inspection, it will continue to insist on ultimate denuclearization and will likely not resume formal negotiations with Pyongyang unless the North agrees to these terms. While China also will not recognize North Korea as a “nuclear weapons state” under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and will also insist upon ultimate denuclearization, it is unclear whether China shares the view that the North must accept those terms prior to sitting down at the negotiating table again.
So, even assuming the North would contemplate such terms, issues would abound regarding sequencing of steps and the pace of implementation. Moreover, fundamental questions would need to be answered about the purpose of negotiations.
In any case, before even confronting those issues, a key question remains whether China will adopt measures likely to lead to North Korea accepting those ground rules. A major issue for China, of course, is a concern that North Korea should remain stable and that it neither lashes out against the US and others nor be attacked.
Moreover, whatever the United States and others believe that China could do without precipitating either collapse of the North or lashing out, Beijing may well have a different appraisal. For example, it undoubtedly is the case that a total cutoff of Pyongyang’s access to international financial sources would be seen by Beijing as crossing the line of safety. Many in the US and elsewhere, on the other hand, believe that even if Beijing took such action, Pyongyang would refrain from what would possibly be suicidal reactions by launching attacks on its near neighbors or US facilities and assets. Cutting back on Chinese food and fuel supplies to the North raise similar questions.
An interesting area of speculation is to what degree China’s commitment to North Korea’s survival carries over to the survival of the Kim Jong Un regime and of Kim, himself, as the leader. It is doubtful that the PRC would seek to bring about regime change, probably for many of the same reasons the US does not have such a policy—it is unpredictable where things would go and, even if successful, whether what followed would be any better. That said, if a policy of serious pressure is adopted, even though Kim seems secure for now, one cannot be sure what other dynamics might be at work that could turn things abruptly in a different direction.
Although the Chinese are less reluctant than before to discuss alternative North Korean futures in Track 2 channels, and even some that go a bit beyond Track 2, so far China remains very wary of doing so in acknowledged Track 1 conversations for fear of their becoming public and triggering a dangerous North Korean reaction. But both for the sake of persuading Beijing that its long-term strategic interests will not be harmed by carrying through on effective sanctions implementation and other coercive measures, and to be prepared in case of a sudden turn of events, it is imperative that both sides are clear about the intentions of the other. This is especially true with regard to any possible military activities within the North Korean space (for example, the retrieval of assets related to WMD) and both countries’ roles and disposition of their forces once stability is restored. Such discussions would obviously also have to involve South Korea at a minimum, complicating the geometry of the process even more.
These are all big and consequential questions, but, as discussed, for now the focus is on getting the North to suspend its program in a credible fashion and the roles that China, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia will play in making that happen.
In sum, it is simply too early to say whether the Mar-a-Lago summit made a fundamental difference in the future resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue. It certainly changed the tenor of Sino-American interaction and generated at least a superficial commitment to transform the entire relationship through managing the North Korean challenge and other key issues between the two countries in a constructive and sincere way.
Many people will say they have seen this movie before and, notwithstanding the great Xi-Trump personal chemistry that the President has touted, we are not likely to see sufficient actual Chinese accommodation to produce a different result in the long term.
One thing that is different this time is that the new American President really is, as conventional wisdom goes, quite “transactional.” True, pledges of cooperation on North Korea gave President Trump the excuse he needed to back off of his unsustainable threat of labeling China a currency manipulator when there was no recent evidence to justify it. But he has gone beyond that and identified “trade,” a major issue of concern to him, as an area where he is willing to bestow greater benefits on China if it really does help on North Korea. Whether that is in the US national interest is a matter of judgment, but it seems to be where the President is at the moment.
It is unknown, of course, how China will put all of these factors about overall security, economics and national standing together with its focused concerns about North Korea. But it is an interesting moment, to say the least. And while skepticism is fully warranted, it would be premature to close one’s mind to the possibility that China may, at least to some degree, alter its calculation of how to best promote its national interests.