There are some problems that “good chemistry” just can’t solve. At a surprisingly cheerful summit meeting at Mar-a-Lago in April, China’s president Xi Jinping seemed to find Donald Trump’s sweet spot. Xi said they “cemented their mutual trust”; Trump called Xi a “terrific person” and hailed their “good chemistry together,” predicting that “lots of potentially bad problems will go away.”
But one of those bad problems isn’t going anywhere, and as a result, Trump’s view of China is quickly turning sour. The reason for his dwindling patience is Beijing’s failure to rein in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program and escalating series of missile tests, the latest being an intercontinental ballistic missile that might someday carry a nuclear payload that could hit the continental United States. “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday. “So much for China working with us - but we had to give it a try!”
China seems not to have appreciated how fortunate it was that Trump’s China policy has focused overwhelmingly on North Korea, rather than on its unfair trade and investment policies and its aggressive military expansion in the Asia-Pacific. For China’s interests, this has meant free rein on most other issues of concern—an extraordinary opportunity that it has squandered by not responding more effectively to what Trump wanted on this single front. Now, Trump is ratcheting up the pressure on China on multiple fronts at once.
Trump seems rightly to have determined that China isn’t doing enough on North Korea.
Monday’s missile test came months after the president tweeted that a North Korean ICBM “won’t happen” on his watch. North Korea is destabilizing Asia and is now posing a pressing security threat to the U.S. itself. China has more leverage and must do more. So the Trump administration has rolled out various new measures that Beijing has deplored: “secondary sanctions” on a Chinese bank, shipping company and two company officials for involvement in money laundering to aid North Korea; a $1.42 billion new arms sale to Taiwan; more assertive naval operations in the South China Sea; and the high-level release of a State Department report accusing China of being one of the worst-offending countries on human trafficking.
The Chinese miscalculated with Trump in two ways related to North Korea. First, China failed to take significant concrete steps for which Trump could claim credit. China’s announced suspension of coal imports from North Korea, a substantial punishment of North Korea, took place before the Mar-a-Lago summit and in response to U.N. resolutions—and this is a president who needs to be able to take personal credit for concrete things.
On this score, what should China have done, and would that have made a difference? Let’s simply take the case of the sanctions the U.S. has just imposed on two Chinese entities for pro-North Korean money laundering. We must assume that China was informed about the specific U.S. concerns related to these institutions and given information to support those concerns. So informed, China should have stepped up and gone after those companies itself.
The two entities are small, so China would not have lost face by cracking down on them. Most important, going after them would not have brought into play China’s most fundamental strategic concern regarding North Korea: that tightening the screws enough to freeze its nuclear program and bring it to the bargaining table would jeopardize the survival of what Beijing views as a buffer state. The unusual step of going after some Chinese nationals for money laundering that helps finance North Korea would have responded to Trump’s overtures at little cost to China and demonstrated that China was prepared to put new pressure on the North Korean regime.
The second Chinese miscalculation was to assume that President Trump would be patient in waiting for concrete steps and results from China on North Korea. One of China’s finest international relations scholars, Professor Shi Yinhong, was quoted the other day as saying, “The latest situation [has] illustrated that Trump is a leader without patience.” Indeed. But this lesson should have been learned long ago. Not only has President Trump said repeatedly that “the era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed”—he is characteristically an impatient person. Chinese diplomats are exquisitely skilled in tactics of delay, but the more valuable skill in dealing with Trump is managing his impatience.
So Beijing misread Trump. But since North Korea’s July 4 missile test prompted a Trump tweet still holding out the prospect that China would make a “heavy move” on Pyongyang, perhaps Beijing will see an opportunity to correct its blunder. Trump has repeatedly signaled that his patience with China is wearing thin, yet he appears to have no viable alternative to demanding that Xi bring Kim to heel. The two leaders may have an opportunity to clarify matters on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Hamburg.
It is certainly not a happy thing to see U.S.-China relations becoming more tense—these, after all, are the two most powerful countries in the world. For the sake of the world, to say nothing of the two countries, it is essential that the U.S.-China relationship be as positive as possible, maximizing cooperation and managing differences. But the Chinese blunder that produced this tension is not necessarily a bad thing for U.S. interests. By giving China a mostly free pass on everything but North Korea, President Trump was not giving enough attention to other issues in the U.S.-China relationship that need U.S. pushback – for example, the lack of reciprocity in trade and investment and China’s ever-expanding activity in the South China Sea. Quite apart from North Korea, the central challenge of U.S.-China relations must be addressed: Can the United States coexist peacefully with an increasingly powerful China?
The Trump administration should be wrestling with the full range of China challenges. Even though one fears clumsy and needlessly provocative actions when this administration turns to significant issues, that cannot excuse inattention. A broader China policy will, of course, require administration officials to deal with the relationship’s great complexities, which Trump has shoved to the side. But this may also allow them to set the U.S.-China relationship on a more sustainable and realistic path.