WILL TRUMP’S NEW MODUS OPERADI WORK WITH PYONGYANG?
To what extent has the US-China relationship changed following the April 6-7 summit in Florida between the two heads of state? A press briefing on April 16 by an unidentified senior White House official accompanying Vice President Mike Pence on his four-nation visit to Asia gives some indication of the impact of the summit.
The official reportedly said that the US government is in fact in no hurry to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a hit-and-kill missile defense system whose early deployment and activation in South Korea it had been planning. The official was quoted as noting:
“There are still some things to work out…It might be better to wait for the May 9 election of a new South Korean president (who should) make the final decision on THAAD activation.”
If what the official allegedly said is true, why did America change its mind about the defense system now after maintaining for months that it was determined to get the controversial system deployed in South Korea as swiftly as possible? After all, threats of North Korean missile launches and nuclear tests have not abated to the slightest extent.
Akio Yaita, editorial staff of the foreign news department of the conservative daily Sankei Shimbun and a respected expert on Chinese affairs, pointed out the possibility that the US, which urged China to cooperate in dealing with North Korea, is taking into account of Beijing’s positive response to date.
America has always thought Beijing capable of deterring Pyongyang. Meanwhile,
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who badly needs America’s cooperation, especially at this juncture, is doing his utmost to avert confrontation with the US. In other words, the US and China need each other at this time.
How strongly Xi desired to avoid confrontation with the US was plainly discernible in China’s abstention from a vote on April 12 at the United Nations that would have censured Syria for its use of chemical weapons.
As expected, Russia backed Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad by vetoing the resolution. But China, which had joined Russia in vetoing six previous resolutions on Syria since the civil war erupted in 2011, abstained this time.
Responding to a telephone conversation Trump had with Xi the day before the vote to request his cooperation with the US, Xi chose to side with Washington and distance China from Russia.
20th Century Personality Cult
“China’s decision to not exercise its veto this time clearly shows its readiness to go along with the US as regards restraining North Korea,” notes Yaita, further explaining:
“With a crucial meeting scheduled for August in Beidaihe, Heibei Province, and the 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the fall, Xi was hard pressed to make his first summit with Trump a success. Xi doesn’t want to see America cause trouble before these two important meetings. With that in mind, he desperately wanted to cement the bilateral relationship. That was the background to his visit to the US.”
Contemplating sweeping organizational changes within the CCP, Xi must win the consent of party elders at the August meeting in Beidaihe, a famed summer resort. Last fall Xi positioned himself as the “heart” of the CCP on a par with Mao Zedong. This year, he is reportedly determined to neutralize the CCP’s politburo standing committee and create a new position for himself in which power will be concentrated in his own hands—chairman of the central committee of the CCP, a position held by Mao 1945-1982.
Xi’s plans have already generated concern that contemporary China will be pulled back to an era in the 20th century when the cult of personality was practiced, reportedly causing the elders of the party to raise their voices in strong protest. In order to override their opposition and win the approval of the party congress this fall, Xi must adroitly manage any international or domestic challenges that may arise.
All of China is particularly nervous about THAAD in South Korea, and the country is going all out to prevent deployment. There is a wholesale campaign to boycott Korean goods and services, and a squeeze is even being put on tourists bound for South Korea.
Trump is attempting to use Xi’s needs and the present state of affairs in China as leverage to get what he wants: Chinese intervention with North Korea. As for Xi, if the purpose of his trip was to entice the US to stay quiet until the party congress ends, a postponement of THAAD’s deployment would definitely be a desirable outcome for him. However, it’s difficult to see the deployment being postponed until after the summer, or the fall, given the threat of further missile launches by North Korea. If so, the US could adjust the timing of THAAD’s deployment based on the progress of Chinese discussions with the North.
I base my conjecture on the significant softening of Trump’s remarks about China after his summit with Xi at Mar-a-Lago. In an April 13 column in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Trump and Xi: Tensions Turn to Friendship,” Trump was quoted as saying:
“We have a great chemistry together. We like each other. I like him a lot. I think his wife is terrific. An opening discussion (between us) was scheduled for 10 to 15 minutes, and it lasted for three hours. And then on the second day we had another 10-minute meeting and that lasted for two hours. We just had a very great chemistry.”
Support for the North
These passionate and positive remarks by Trump are the exact opposite of his negative statements about China in the recent past.
The Journal pointed out that Trump has been reversing key positions one after another, including his stance toward Putin. During the 70-minute interview at the Oval Office, Trump flatly stated, “Despite what you guys have been writing about him, I don’t know Putin. I don’t know Putin.”
As regards China, which he previously denounced as a currently manipulator, Trump said that he “would not label China as a currency manipulator.” Of the Export-Import Bank, which he has brushed aside as useless, Trump said “…actually, it’s a very good thing. And it actually makes money, it could made a lot of money.” And Trump praised the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as “the bulwark of international peace and security…It’s no longer obsolete.” Asked why he has changed his mind, backtracking on a handful of key issues, Trump replied:
“The magnitude of everything is so big, and also the decisions are so big. You know, you’re talking about life and death…” (not whether you can make a deal or not).
Trump, who initially thought that China would be able to resolve the North Korean issue rather easily, was quoted as realizing, “after listening to Xi for the first ten minutes, that it would not be that easy.” One still suspects China might have made America some promise, and that Trump may perhaps be resigned to wait and see for some time even if China may not be able to deliver the goods immediately. “I don’t think sanctions will affect China-North Korea relations,” observed Yaita. “You cannot put the economic screws to North Korea. Of course, it would be a different story if Pyongyang is given money.”
China is well aware of this. If it withdraws economic support from North Korea as America demands, it will give Russia an excuse to jump in, bringing the North into the Russian camp. Many times in the past, America has failed in its attempt to leave China to deter North Korea. Is the Trump administration learning that same hard lesson now?
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 751 in the April 27, 2017 issue of The Weekly Shincho)