US-CHINA CLASH GROWING FIERCER OVER NORTH KOREA
The US-North Korea summit, initially slated for June 12 in Singapore but abruptly cancelled by President Donald Trump last week, appears back on track. Out of the dramatic turn of events following Trump’s announcement have emerged clearer prospects for positive developments for Japan.
Specifically, it is expected that the summit will bring Japan and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a step closer toward resolving the issue of Japanese abductees in North Korea, as Trump will now likely be in a much stronger position going into the summit.
On May 24, Trump told the press in the Oval Office he had just sent a letter cancelling the summit to Kim Jong-un, in effect giving the North Korean dictator a good slap in the face. Whatever made Trump change his mind in the two weeks since May 9, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew back triumphantly from Pyongyang with three American hostages? Several factors contributed to his decision.
First of all, on May 16, North Korea’s First Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kim Kye-gwan, launched a personal attack on White House national security advisor John Bolton—a staunch advocate of the “Libya model” of denuclearization of the North, warning that if the US insisted on the unilateral abandonment of its nuclear arsenal, they couldn’t “help but reconsider” their attendance at the DPRK-US summit.
A week later, on May 23, Choe Son-hui, Kye-gwan’s subordinate who serves as a vice minister of the Foreign Ministry, called Vice President Mike Pence a “political dummy” for comparing North Korea to Libya, declaring: “Whether the US will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at a nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decisions and behavior of the US.”
That evening, Trump reportedly retired for the night after being briefed on these verbal abuses. The next morning, he assembled Pence, Pompeo, and Bolton for consultations and drafted the letter to Jong-un.
Explaining why he decided to cancel the summit, Trump said he warned Kim that “ours (the US nuclear capabilities) are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.” This was the ultimate intimidation.
If the summit is going to be held, there will only be two results now: either the North will agree to completely denuclearize, or the summit will break down. Until Trump’s abrupt cancellation prompted the North to immediately rethink its position, a third result had been possible: both parties would agree only to the destruction of all of the North’s ICBMs capable of reaching the US, with Pyongyang resorting to various excuses for not being ready to discard its short and medium-range missiles or biochemical weapons. This would have been the worst-case scenario, as China and South Korea would have vigorously supported this arrangement, and the US would have been compelled to face a long diplomatic stalemate without being able to mete out a decisive solution.
Trump’s Displeasure with Xi
But this third possibility appears highly unlikely this time around. Having learned from past experience, the US will refuse to let North Korea have its way while tightening its guard against China’s attempts to influence the North. In point of fact, Trump told South Korean President Moon Jae-pin in Washington on May 22:
“I’d like to see (North Korea’s denuclearization) done at one time…If certain conditions aren’t met, we won’t have the meeting.”
Trump thus made clear that he would not be meeting Kim without imposing stringent conditions, spelling out what he wanted the North Korean dictator to deliver.
Below is what Trump told Moon as regards China:
–In discussing China’s huge trade surplus with the US, he is watching how Beijing will help Washington resolve the North Korean issue;
–He has decided to consider helping the Chinese telecom company ZTE after
Chinese President Xi Jing-pin “asked me to look into it”;
–Kim Jong-un’s posture towards the US changed after his second meeting with Xi.
(Trump repeated “I didn’t like it” three times to express his discontent.)
–Trump was surprised to learn through press reports that Kim was in China in May
meeting Xi for the second time in two months; and,
–“I think that President Xi is a world class poker player.”
The above remarks by Trump reflect his sheer displeasure with Xi. Although he said he
had been giving due consideration to Xi as regards China’s mammoth trade surplus in order to show America’s appreciation of Beijing’s cooperation in tackling denuclearization, Trump was extremely unhappy that Xi had failed to inform him of Kim’s visit to Dalian May 7-8. Furthermore, while Washington is demanding a speedy denuclearization of Pyongyang, Xi insists that it be “phased”—as Kim does.
By this time, Trump must have started to belatedly realize that he and Xi are
on completely different wavelengths. China has in effect already resumed economic assistance to North Korea in violation of the United Nations sanctions against the reclusive kingdom. Trucks loaded to capacity with daily cargo are once again crisscrossing the China-North Korea border, while North Korean workers with regular visas have returned to their workplaces in China.
Trump certainly does not want to see his summit with Kim manipulated by China. However, he had to think twice as China promised to reduce its trade surplus by some US$100 billion the first year and another US$100 billion the following year. As he was calculating the pros and cons involved, the blatant verbal attack of Pence came from Choe Son-hui, which I suspect provided Trump with a most welcome opportunity to refrain from forging ahead with the summit.
In the US, both Democratic and Republican forces are displaying growing weariness over China. Professor Tadae Takubo, an international affairs expert who serves as Deputy Director of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, a privately financed think tank that I head, pointed out:
“Dr. Elizabeth Economy, a leading American expert on China, has written an article titled ‘China’s New Revolution’ for Foreign Affairs (May-June 2018), in which she defines China as ‘an illiberal state seeking leadership in a liberal world order.’ She further warns that China, which has richly benefited from the existing world order, has sought to ‘advance the principles of this new China on the global stage’ to the detriment of the liberal and democratic values of the free world.”
Casting Stern Eyes on China
Under Xi Jing-pin’s autocratic rule, Economy emphasizes, a fierce and illicit campaign of exploitation and suppression led by the Communist Party has been in progress in China. She notes that this puts the US right in the middle of an intense clash of values with China.
To cope effectively with China, she urges the US to forcefully assert “enduring American principles” and work closely with Asia-Pacific allies who share the same values, such as Japan, Australia, India, and Southeast Asian nations, as well as other developing nations of the world. Takubo added:
“Another notable development in the US is that even its most liberal thinkers are beginning to turn critical of China. One of them is Kurt Campbell, who actively promoted a pro-Chinese policy as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (2009-2013) under President Barak Obama.”
In The China Reckoning in the March-April issue of the same magazine, Campbell
maintains that US policy toward China in administrations of both parties has relied in the
past on “a mistaken confidence in America’s ability to mold China to US liking.” He points out that China has betrayed America’s expectations and that America must deal with China more realistically and stringently now.
Undoubtedly, America is beginning to cast stern eyes on the world’s second largest economy. Change in America’s posture toward China is already taking place, although it will not be easy to restructure the fundamentals of its China policy, as the economic relationship between the two superpowers has become so substantial over the years.
In the South China Sea on May 27, a US Navy cruiser and a destroyer conducted a freedom of navigation operation within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands which China, Taiwan, and Vietnam claim. The operation was an obvious countermeasure against a joint patrol staged by the Chinese Navy and the Coast Guard, whose role has transitioned to that of a heavily armed military police unit.
Four days earlier, on May 23, the US Department of Defense rescinded an invitation to China to participate in next month’s biennial Exercise RIMPAC—an international military exercise in the Pacific. The DoD’s action allegedly was America’s retaliation for the first ever takeoff and landing drills by Chinese bombers on Woody Island on May 18.
Two months earlier, on March 16, the Trump administration had enacted the Taiwan Travel Act to counter the increasing pressure China is exerting against Taiwan, enabling high-ranking American and Taiwanese officials to exchange visits at will. The administration’s perception of China is definitely growing more severe.
If the Singapore summit does indeed take place, China will undoubtedly try to exert as much influence as possible over the situation on the Korean Peninsula by stepping in to adroitly back North Korea. Trump will in no way allow that to happen, but I believe Abe will have a vital role to play in helping his friend stick to his guns right through the end of the summit.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 805 in the June 7, 2018 issue of
The Weekly Shincho)