APRIL 14, 2017 — The U.S. relationship with China? It’s complicated. The two sides are economically entwined yet geopolitical adversaries in the Pacific, where China’s ambition to project power risks colliding with the U.S. commitment to keep peace.
The biggest potential flashpoint is nuclear-armed North Korea, a rogue state that exists in almost complete isolation — except for its tight relationship with China. North Korea is utterly reliant on China for energy and other forms of trade.
As we write, North Korea is rumored to be preparing another test of a nuclear bomb, and a U.S. Navy carrier strike group is cruising off the Korean coast to send the North a message to keep its finger off the trigger. If only the U.S. could compel China to drive North Korea to the negotiating table over its nukes program.
That hope’s been around for a long time and has done little but provide the North with time and space to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. China doesn’t consider North Korea a military threat and, more to the point, isn’t wishing for the sudden demise of Kim Jong Un’s regime because the collapse of North Korea would create chaos on the border with China.
Curiously, there are hints of common ground between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping over North Korea, though plenty of reason to be skeptical. After Trump and Xi met in Florida and spoke again by telephone, Trump sketched out a potential deal in which China reins in North Korea in exchange for trade benefits. “I think he wants to help us on North Korea,” Trump said of Xi at an April 12 news conference.
Yes, well, that would be great.
But Trump is new to the job of president, a neophyte on global affairs and inclined to look at danger zones the way he approached the real estate game: He believes desirable outcomes are just a matter of negotiation. Trump acknowledged his thin grasp of Korean issues when he told The Wall Street Journal in an April 12 interview that Xi had provided him with an illuminating overview of China-North Korea relations. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” the president recounted. “I felt pretty strongly that they had tremendous power” over North Korea, “but it’s not what you would think.”
There you have some bad news about Donald Trump’s unusual presidency: At times he doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know. The good news, maybe, is that coming in fresh provides the opportunity for a different approach. Trump says he considers himself flexible on many issues, and proved it by doing an about-face on previous criticism of China. As a candidate, he attacked China on trade, declaring the Chinese “the greatest currency manipulators ever.” He told the Journal never mind, they aren’t.
Putting aside prickly trade disputes with China appears to be a big part of the deal Trump envisions reaching with Xi. He said at the news conference that he told the Chinese, “The way you’re going to make a good trade deal is to help us with North Korea, otherwise we’re just going to go it alone.”
There’s foolishness in Trump’s hurtling from position to opposite position, yet there’s cleverness too. His three immediate predecessors lackadaisically watched as North Korea became a nuclear menace. If Trump can work with Xi to defang Pyongyang, we wish him every success. Thanks to decades of American dithering and denial, Trump inherited no better option.