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China’s Trump honeymoon could be nearing end

US President Donald Trump gestures before boarding Air Force One at Joint Andrews Airforce base, Maryland on June 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KammNICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
President Trump tweeted this week that ““While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out.”

BEIJING — The short, unexpected honeymoon that China enjoyed with President Trump seems to be in trouble, dashing hopes in Beijing that the two countries had embarked on a new, businesslike relationship.

Trump’s assertion that China had failed to pressure North Korea into curbing its nuclear and ballistic missile program means that Beijing must now confront the prospect of a stormier relationship ahead — not just over North Korea but also tougher stands on trade, currency and the South China Sea that Trump set aside as he sought President Xi Jinping’s help with Pyongyang.

“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out,” Trump wrote on Twitter this week, before a high-level meeting of Chinese and US officials Wednesday in Washington, signaling a harder line.

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Trump did not detail what might follow that conclusion, but the options on the table with North Korea — including more coercive sanctions that could target Chinese companies trading with the country, a military buildup and even the use of force — are all deeply objectionable to Beijing.

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At the same time, Trump had previously suggested he was holding off on getting tough on China’s trade policies in return for Xi’s help with reining in North Korea, often engaging in public flattery of the leader. Now, Xi and his colleagues in Beijing must ask — again — whether Trump is serious about the threats he made on the campaign trail.

The prospect of a rockier relationship is particularly sensitive now as Xi prepares to preside over the Communist Party’s 19th National Party Congress in the fall. While Xi’s reelection to a second five-year term as president is not in doubt, he is said to want to use the gathering to consolidate his authority and reshuffle the leadership, and he does not want any foreign crises to be distractions.

“What Trump is saying is, I don’t need you on North Korea now, and therefore maybe we should have it out on these other issues, like trade,” said John Delury, an expert on China and the Koreas at Yonsei University in Seoul.

The official response from China was fairly muted, though strained.

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“I have to say that the crux of the Korean Peninsula problem and the focal point of the conflict is not China,” a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang, said at a briefing Wednesday.

He added: “Resolving the Korean Peninsula issue requires joint efforts, and it won’t work if it depends on China alone.” At the same time, he said that “China’s role is indispensable.”

The statement by Trump, although couched in appreciative words for Xi, surprised and annoyed analysts in Beijing. China had taken significant steps to tighten trade with the North, they said, and the United States had, as always, not given sanctions enough time to take effect.

“China has done its best, and these sanctions are working,” said Lu Chao, director of the Border Study Institute at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, a government research organization in Shenyang. “Given time, they will have a greater impact on the economy.”

Even direct talks with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un — which seem less likely after the death of Otto F. Warmbier, the US college student who was released by North Korea in a coma last week — could leave China without a say in any negotiated outcome.

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“We understand the Americans are angry over the student’s death,” said Jin Qiangyi, director of the Center for North and South Korea Studies at Yanbian University in Yanbian, near China’s border with North Korea. But imposing new sanctions targeting Chinese companies would only lead to more problems, he said.

“The United States may want to smoke North Korea out with sanctions so it would drop its nuclear programs, but we doubt this will work,” he said. “This is a country that has managed to go through decades of sanctions.”