China’s Trump Honeymoon: Unexpected, and at Risk of Ending

June 22, 2017


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.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter this week, ahead of a high-level meeting of Chinese and American officials on Wednesday in Washington, signaling a harder line.

Mr. 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.

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

The prospect of a rockier relationship is particularly sensitive now as Mr. Xi prepares to preside over the Communist Party’s 19th National Party Congress in the fall. While Mr. Xi’s re-election 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.

“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 on 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.”


A test of the Pukguksong-2, a ballistic missile, in an undated photo released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency in February. Mr. Trump said that China had failed to pressure North Korea into curbing its nuclear and missile programs. Credit Korean Central News Agency

The statement by Mr. Trump, although couched in appreciative words for Mr. 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 American college student who was released by North Korea in a coma last week — could leave China without a say in any negotiated outcome.

Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said that Mr. Xi’s government had learned not to take Mr. Trump’s Twitter messages at face value.

“The Chinese government assumes Trump’s tweets do not necessarily represent the administration,” he said. “The government cannot treat them very seriously. Trump changes all the time.”

He added that the new round of meetings in Washington came at a “very critical period” and that the government would try to sustain the positive momentum of the first few months of the Trump presidency.

Officials in Beijing had expressed confidence that their gestures to Mr. Trump — including the lifting on Tuesday of a 14-year embargo on American beef imports — would placate Mr. Trump, whose platform as a candidate had signaled a more confrontational policy. “Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem?” he wrote in a tweet in April, defending the reversal of a campaign promise.

Mr. Xi’s visit in April to Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s club in Palm Beach, Fla., underlined the importance China places on relations with the United States, and officials hoped the initial cordiality between the two leaders would establish the sort of nonconfrontational partnership that Beijing prefers.

China’s willingness to help with North Korea — or at least be seen to be helping — became the foundation of that relationship. In recent weeks, however, White House officials signaled a growing frustration with Beijing, arguing that Mr. Trump’s bet had not paid off. The president appears to have reached the same conclusion.

“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.”

Jane Perlez and Yufan Huang contributed reporting.



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