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Will Trump Be Able to Tame China and Quell North Korea?

Updated on February 16, 2017
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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with China National Offshore Oil Corp. chairman Fu Chengyu
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with China National Offshore Oil Corp. chairman Fu Chengyu | Source

Trump and China and Regional Stability

As I wrote recently, President Trump is already dealing with a nearly nuclear-armed Iran in the Middle East in the 45th president of the United States’ first of many foreign policy challenges. Another part of Asia also demands Trump’s attention. China will not run from a fight from the new president.

Michael Auslin declared in a recent Foreign Policy piece that “Trump’s Asia policy represents the first major reshaping of U.S. policy toward China since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1979.” And looking at it from China’s perspective, “it is currently on a worst-case trajectory, heading toward a trade war and a military standoff over China’s basic interests in Asia, including Taiwan.” Let’s hope it does not come to that. Early developments have revealed that Trump is already moderating many of his previously stated hardline stances on China.

Still, a U.S. Navy underwater drone was seized last month in international waters near the Philippines, a sign the Chinese were not deterred by Trump’s fiery rhetoric. China is certainly concerned about Trump’s view of Taiwan’s independence, one that threatens China’s geopolitical integrity, perhaps spurring other separatist movements in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Trump’s call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen alarmed Beijing. This resulted in the Chinese government stating that “any attempt by Trump to change the status quo over Taiwan would cross a ‘red line’ and incur ‘revenge.’”

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made clear his intentions to remain an equal on the world stage with the United States. Auslin concluded that “There is no question, however, that Trump has already changed the dynamic in U.S.-China relations. For years, it has been American presidents who have chosen not to antagonize Beijing or exacerbate tensions with China and Chinese leaders who have been willing to push the envelope. In boldly seizing the initiative before being sworn in, Trump may have turned the tables on his Chinese counterparts. It may now be China’s leaders who need to tread carefully.

The Chinese have not been treading too carefully in recent weeks though. The Chinese foreign ministry on Tuesday, January 24 warned Washington to "speak and act cautiously" on the South China Sea. The two countries have already clashed on Taiwan and trade issues during Trump’s early presidency. That makes three close encounters of sorts.

White House press secretary, Sean Spicer sparked off the South China Sea controversy when he said the U.S. would “make sure that we protect our interests” in the resource-rich trade route, through which $4.5 trillion worth of trade passes each year.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, responded later that Tuesday saying the U.S. should tread carefully "to avoid harming the peace and stability of the South China Sea". Hua would reiterate that the U.S. is not a party in the dispute, suggesting that China should be left to settle its own affairs in the South China Sea with nearby countries, without U.S. involvement.

Rex Tillerson, Trump's now secretary of state, caused a stir in Beijing earlier this year before he was approved by the Senate when he linked the artificial island building China was doing in the South China Sea to “Russia's taking of Crimea.” Satellite photos released in August 2016 showed the progress China was making on construction of at least two dozen concrete hangars suitable for housing air force planes, such as strategic bombers and inflight refuelers on the artificial islands. The photos show construction on the man-made islands on the Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief reefs.

Tillerson is coming out with some tough words for the world’s second largest economy in his new diplomatic capacity. “They are taking territory or control or declaring control of territories that are not rightfully China's,” Tillerson declared. He said during his confirmation hearing in the Senate that the White House needed to send China a “clear signal” that such activities had to stop and that its access to such territories was “not going to be allowed.”

Whether or not Trump and Tillerson follow through on this hard line against China remains to be seen. Nevertheless, China slapped down Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis when he asserted that the U.S. would defend Japan’s claim to a group of islands also claimed by China, per the Associated Press. China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that Mattis's remarks undermine regional stability.

"We urge the U.S. side to take a responsible attitude, stop making wrong remarks on the issue involving the Diaoyu islands' sovereignty, and avoid making the issue more complicated and bringing instability to the regional situation," Lu said in a statement on the ministry’s website, according to the AP.

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One China and Weakness Asserted

Still, the U.S. and Japan tested anti-ballistic SM-3 missiles in the Pacific Ocean on February 4 in a successful joint exercise. The missiles were launched from a U.S. warship and hit the intended hypothetical target, according to Japan’s state newspaper Asahi Shimburn.

While the Trump administration cozies up to Japan, he also predicts good relations with Beijing over the next few years. In recent comments, Trump said he expected the two countries to get along “very well.” An optimistic opening.

Things could go well for U.S.-China relations if President Trump abides by the “One China” policy, apparently a precondition for friendly relations with The People’s Republic. President Xi’s wait-and-see approach attempt has apparently paid off for now as Trump has signaled his willingness to adhere to the “One China” policy. Under this policy, the U.S. must have diplomatic dealings with only the Chinese government as opposed to the government on the island of Taiwan. The two world leaders chatted on the phone for some time to hash things out after Taiwan’s call with Trump.

President Trump tried to brush off his call to Ms. Tsai, the Taiwanese leader, as of little consequence. He also initially vowed to use the “One China” policy as leverage in negotiations with China on contentious security and economic issues, though that might not be the case anymore. Mr. Trump also had threatened, while running for president, to slap a 45% trade tariff on Chinese goods and promised to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. Though both of those now will not to become a reality.

Xi expressed hope for future relations with the new American administration, “The development of China and the United States absolutely can complement each other and advance together. Both sides absolutely can become very good cooperative partners.”

James Zimmerman, former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, told the Washington Post that Trump never should’ve raised the “One China” issue in the first place. It now puts Trump in a position of weakness.

“There is certainly a way of negotiating with the Chinese, but threats concerning fundamental, core interests are counterproductive from the get-go,” he said. “The end result is that Trump just confirmed to the world that he is a paper tiger, a zhilaohu — someone that seems threatening but is wholly ineffectual and unable to stomach a challenge.” Trump might be a paper tiger or he might be trying to do what’s best for America and that includes friendly relations with the Chinese, whatever that takes.

Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, would concur with Zimmerman’s assertion of Trump’s weakness.

“The Chinese will see him as weak,” he said in a newspaper interview. “He has reinforced the impression in Beijing that Trump is not serious about managing the U.S.-China relationship.”

But North Korea Just Won’t Go Away

Things got real serious for President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Abe when they headed for the 19th hole after their recent golf outing in Florida. They received reports that China’s neighbor, North Korea, had test-fired a ballistic missile into the sea, the first test-fire during the Trump administration. South Korean officials claimed “it is part of a show of force in response to the new U.S. administration's hardline position against the North.” North Korea is a nuclear armed authoritarian country, with China to the north, and South Korea and 28,500 American troops to the south.

The missile was launched from Panghyon, an area in North Korea's western region just before 8 AM on Saturday, February 11. The projectile flew about 300 miles. Trump was immediately briefed on the test.

So what is the Trump administration to do about North Korea?

Before the recent missile test, Defense Secretary James Mattis said earlier in February that North Korea would face an “effective and overwhelming” retaliation if it were to use nuclear weapons on the U.S. or any of its allies, according to an AP report. Mattis made the remark in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, during his first overseas trip as defense secretary.

Mattis is assisting in the development of a new missile defense system with South Korea, which the North warned would push the peninsula to the “brink of civil war.” Pyongyang opposes the system, along with China, which they see as a “preemptive attack on the North.” This statement coincided with Mattis’ visit to Seoul, where he pledged America’s commitment to this missile defense system that would protect both American and South Korean troops.

We can only hope that North Korean leader Kim Jung Un’s hold on power is slipping. A glimmer of that hope came to light recently with the highest level defection from North Korea in years. Thae Yong Ho was an envoy for Pyongyang in London for ten years up until last summer, when he defected with his wife and two sons to South Korea. He was questioned and debriefed by South Korean intelligence before settling into his new life in Seoul, where he is constantly accompanied by bodyguards.

Thae Yong Ho claims that the key to taking down the Un regime is access to information. In North Korea, fewer than 1% of the population has Internet access. Foreign media is banned and the only television broadcasts are propaganda. Thae believes that the only way to bring down the nuclear weapons-obsessed dictator is to break down censorship and destroy the surveillance state from within.

Kim Jong Un has proven he will do whatever it takes to hold onto power. Including, poisoning his half brother apparently. Kim Jong Nam died this past Monday, February 13 after becoming ill at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport before a flight to Macau. It is not clear how he was poisoned and no suspects have been announced. Though it was described that he became suddenly ill. Kim was in his 40s.

Later reporting from Sputnik showed that Kim Jong Un’s half brother was killed by two unidentified women with poisoned needles. It was labeled an “assassination.” According to the Yonhap news agency, Kim Jong Nam was killed by two unidentified women with poisoned needles. The police suspect the killers of having links to North Korea.

Kim believed his youngest brother, Kim Jong Un would fail as North Korea's leader. The eldest Kim brother’s death comes after Kim Jong Un has purged other senior leadership around him, including the minister of state security, earlier this month.

In other news, a South Korean think tank report in December detailed that Kim had ordered the execution of 340 people since coming to power. Some 140 of the 340 killed since 2011 were senior government officers.

How Trump deals with the strongmen in Asia could be a defining factor of his presidency. President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was by most accounts a disaster or at least short on its lofty goals. North Korea has literally fired an opening shot to test the untested Trump and China has met Trump at the table to retain China’s place atop the world order alongside the U.S.

Either way, China will have to be a part of the solution. Some see them as a problem, others the solution or simply a business partner. Trump’s early dealings hint at an amiable relationship that could result in mutually beneficial economic growth. Likely, Trump will try to see what China can do in reeling in North Korea from pursuing further proliferation, provocation, and missile testing.

Trump has displayed himself as a man of action, so he could very well change strategy in dealing with the nuclear-armed North Korean regime, which could upset China. He will need a plan. The Trump administration has already reached out to and engaged in significant talks with the Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese governments. Will he use them to play nice? Or to exert pressure? Only time will tell. He hasn’t even been president a month yet if you can believe that.

Trump’s foreign policy in this turbulent East Asian region has been difficult to decipher so far but it should become clearer in due time. The South China Sea could be a powder keg igniting a very dangerous war. Or we could keep matters civil and improve relations with the two leading countries in the world? Trump would be wise to punish North Korea for its recent actions while maintaining warm relations with his Chinese counterparts.

USS Lassen (DDG 82) operates in international waters near the Chinese People's Liberation Army (Navy) Jianghu V-class frigate Dongguan (560) while on patrol in U.S. 7th Fleet at South China Sea, Sep 29, 2015.
USS Lassen (DDG 82) operates in international waters near the Chinese People's Liberation Army (Navy) Jianghu V-class frigate Dongguan (560) while on patrol in U.S. 7th Fleet at South China Sea, Sep 29, 2015. | Source

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