In battle of wills with Beijing, Trump needs to keep the upper hand

In battle of wills with Beijing, Trump needs to keep the upper hand
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAverage tax refunds down double-digits, IRS data shows White House warns Maduro as Venezuela orders partial closure of border with Colombia Trump administration directs 1,000 more troops to Mexican border MORE demonstrated early that, even out of government, he had learned lessons about North Korea and China that previous administrations had missed or ignored. During his campaign, he stated: “They say they don’t have that much control over North Korea. They have total control, because without China they wouldn’t be able to eat. … China should solve that problem. And we should put pressure on China to solve the problem.”

This signaled a significant departure from the indulgence accorded China by his immediate four predecessors. They all accepted Henry Kissinger’s urgings that Beijing (a) was at least as concerned as the West about North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, but (b) was constrained from doing anything about it because the Pyongyang regime might collapse and trigger a massive refugee flow into China. (Over the years, Kissinger offered evolving, often inconsistent, explanations for Beijing’s refusal to apply its unique leverage over its totally dependent ally.)

Despite his own frequent consultations with the former secretary of state, Trump was having none of it. He focused relentlessly on the imperative need for coordinated Chinese pressure on North Korea, while alternately threatening decisive unilateral American action. He showed his willingness to disrupt established U.S.-China modalities even as president-elect when he accepted a congratulatory telephone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and then  questioned the heretofore sacrosanct one-China policy.


At the same time, he put Beijing on notice that he knew something about linkage and leverage — tactics that long had worked to China’s unilateral advantage but now, given the new president’s extensive dealmaking experience, were about to change in the West’s favor. Decades-old constraints on U.S. policy on Taiwan and trade now were on the table as assets, not liabilities.

Under previous administrations, those issues — along with China’s illegal adventurism in the South and East China seas — were kept low-key for fear that Beijing would withhold its meager and largely illusory help on North Korea. Now, the Trump administration was telling China, Washington will use its whip hand. Now, there will be consequences for aggressive Chinese economic and military actions across the board, including aiding and abetting Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

The Trump message to Kim Jong Un was direct and blunt: You, your father, and your grandfather have all touted your nuclear program as a guarantee of regime security (including in a new Korean War you would then feel free to ignite). Policies of previous U.S. administrations allowed you to persist in that delusion. Not this one — your nuclear program instead will be your downfall.

The president used a two-track approach to drive the threat home. First, his “fire and fury” rhetoric was accompanied by credible, calibrated leaks of administration preparations for kinetic action that, depending on Pyongyang’s response, could readily escalate to destruction of the Kim government.    

At the same time, the president seized on an even more plausible and readily available instrument of regime change: North Korea’s internationally-condemned crimes against the humanity of its own population. In a series of major speeches to global audiences and direct interactions with North Korean victims, he implicitly made the case that the regime is not fit to govern and should be replaced. With the proper mix of covert action, strategic communications, and coordination with North Korean defectors, the despised Kim machine could be effectively dismantled without the massive carnage inherent in major military conflict.

To Xi Jinping, Trump was equally clear: You will no longer be able to garner undeserved international prestige as a responsible and moderating force while duplicitously enabling and protecting North Korea’s mounting existential threat to South Korea, Japan and the United States. Chinese entities, both official and commercial, which subvert international sanctions against North Korea, will pay an increasingly heavy price. At the same time, Washington will be less reluctant to retaliate vigorously against Chinese trade violations or to take proactive measures to support Asian friends and allies over Beijing’s objections — such as when the president signed the Taiwan Travel Act encouraging high-level visits between U.S. and Taiwan officials.

These indications of Trump’s seriousness — the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign — brought Kim to agree to meet with the president in Singapore, and official optimism seemed to be the order of the day. But then, after decades of Beijing rebuffing U.S. entreaties to help and  dismissing North Korean nukes as a “bilateral” issue for Washington alone to resolve, Xi suddenly took an interest in the proceedings and twice summoned Kim to Beijing. Immediately after their meeting, Pyongyang reverted to its customary anti-U.S. rhetoric and Trump canceled the summit. It took frantic negotiations and unknown concessions to get it back on, but Beijing’s mask of innocence was off.

At his post-summit press conference, the president expressed confidence that North Korea would denuclearize and thanked those who had contributed to the meeting: “And a very special person, President Xi [Jinping] of China. He has really closed up that border. Maybe a little less the last couple of months. That’s okay. He really has. He is a terrific person and friend of mine. Really the great leader of his people. I want to thank them for their efforts to help us get to this very historic day.”

It is clear there is now a test of political will between Washington and Beijing on trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea and North Korea. Administration credibility earned through Trump’s original instincts and his national security team’s follow-through have finally given the United States the advantage in this pivotal confrontation. But lavishing undeserved praise on Xi as he undermines the sanctions and yielding to his pressure to reverse an effective policy on ZTE, the Chinese entity that sold dangerous technology to Iran and North Korea, will only diminish that credibility and erode that advantage.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010.  He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies, and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.