World

North Korea and trade on Trump’s agenda in Beijing

Children waved US and Chinese flags Wednesday as President Trump arrived in Beijing.
Andrew Harnik/Associated Press
Children waved US and Chinese flags Wednesday as President Trump arrived in Beijing.

BEIJING — President Trump arrived in China on Wednesday, primed to ask his host, President Xi Jinping, to step up Chinese pressure on North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But Trump’s latest foray into personal diplomacy may end in frustration, as the Communist strongman he calls his friend either cannot, or does not want to, do the job.

Trump, a senior administration official said, plans to call on the Chinese leader to cut off oil exports to North Korea, at least temporarily; to close North Korean bank accounts in China; and to send home tens of thousands of North Koreans who work in China.

While Xi may move incrementally in Trump’s direction, experts said he was unlikely to fundamentally alter China’s dynamic with North Korea, a one-time client state with whom its relations have steadily soured during the reign of Kim Jong Un.

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“There are big differences in the way of thinking between the United States and China on North Korea,” said Yang Xiyu, a former Chinese Foreign Ministry negotiator on North Korea. “Trump thinks of North Korea too simplistically — that if China cuts off the oil, the nuclear issue will be solved.”

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Trump’s visit is the stiffest test yet of an audacious, but characteristic, bet: that if he cultivates Xi and offers him concessions, like delaying punitive trade moves, he can persuade the Chinese leader to move against the North in a way that none of his predecessors have.

Speaking in South Korea earlier Wednesday, Trump made an impassioned call for China and other countries to pull together to confront the North, which he described as a sinister regime that starved and terrorized its people — a tragic failed experiment in the “laboratory of history.”

“It is our responsibility and our duty to confront this danger together because the longer we wait, the greater the danger grows, and the fewer the options become,” he said to the National Assembly, South Korea’s parliament.

“To those nations that choose to ignore this threat or, worse still, to enable it, the weight of this crisis is on your conscience,” Trump said.

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Since Trump first played host to Xi at his Florida estate last April, he has said he is counting on Xi to do the right thing with North Korea, alternately praising and prodding the Chinese leader about enforcing tougher UN sanctions.

To his frustration, however, Xi has stopped short of targeting Kim with unilateral sanctions that would threaten his regime, send refugees into China and raise the possibility of a Korean Peninsula under control of the South, a US ally.

China supplies much of North Korea’s energy; almost all of its crude oil flows in an 18-mile pipeline from the port city of Dandong, under the Yalu River, into the North Korean town of Sinuiju.

Trump has offered Xi an unspoken quid pro quo that Washington would hold off on major trade action against Beijing, despite the president’s strident criticism of China’s trade practices.

“Trump somewhat naïvely calculated that China would be more helpful on North Korea if he was ‘magnanimous’ on trade; I doubt Beijing sees it that way,” said Matthew P. Goodman, a political economist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adviser on Asian economics in the administrations of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

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At the start of this trip, Trump administration officials denied the president was willing to make concessions on trade in the hope of extracting what was needed on North Korea. But the president is also not calling on China to make any significant moves to open its markets, preferring to put the spotlight on big-ticket deals for US companies.

Some China experts said Trump failed to understand the limits of Chinese influence on the North. Although China fought alongside the North against the United States in the 1950-53 Korean War and remains its chief economic patron, the two countries are barely friends.

Some Chinese call the relationship a “fake alliance.” The two militaries have no working relationship. Early in his rule, Kim executed his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who had served as the primary conduit between the North and China’s senior leadership.

China’s influence on North Korea may have been further eroded by Xi’s decision last month to restore relations with South Korea, a move that deepened the North’s suspicions.

For more than a year, China had encouraged a boycott of South Korean goods and downgraded relations in protest over the deployment of a US-made missile defense system. But China relented last month and allowed South Korea to keep the system.

Officials in Beijing and Washington point out that China has taken some measurable steps on North Korea. After the North’s accelerating nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile launches, China approved tougher sanctions at the United Nations.

It has agreed to sever banking ties, end joint-venture companies with North Korea, and limit the export of diesel fuel. China shut down North Korea’s coal imports this year.

As Beijing has agreed to harsher penalties against North Korea, the cutting off of crude oil has become one of its last remaining, and most devastating, economic weapons. Some experts doubt that China would go that far because of its potentially destabilizing effect on Pyongyang.

“I don’t see China being complicit in regime change, which is what totally cutting off North Korea’s energy will seriously risk,” said Bilahari Kausikan, an ambassador-at-large for Singapore.

“How can it, when in his 19th Party Congress speech, Xi stressed insistently China’s Leninist state identity?” he said. “And to do so, moreover, by being complicit with China’s main competitor, the United States.”

For China, North Korea remains a valuable buffer against the possibility of a united Korean Peninsula that would probably be capitalist, democratic and allied with the United States, said Evans J.R. Revere, a former State Department official who dealt with Northeast Asia.

“China’s newly invigorated Communist Party and its ambitious leader, Xi Jinping see nothing positive in any of these outcomes,” he said.

Trump’s military threats against North Korea have caught Beijing’s attention, Revere said. But he added, “It is not clear that Beijing takes these threats any more seriously than does Pyongyang, which seems convinced that the United States is bluffing.”

On Wednesday, Xi sought to make up for his differences with Trump by showering him with hospitality. He welcomed him to the Forbidden City, where the leaders and their wives sipped tea, listened to Chinese opera, and toured the Ming and Qing-era treasures in a shrine to China’s imperial past, which the hosts had cleared of tourists for their guests.

It was the third pomp-filled Asian stop, after Japan and South Korea, where the leaders competed to woo and flatter Trump with golf games, honor guards, and references to his election victory and campaign promise to “Make America Great Again.”

The difference between those countries and China, said Jeffrey A. Bader, a former China adviser to Obama, is that “They need us in an existential way; the Chinese don’t need us in an existential way.”