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Kim Jong-un, Trump, Xi Jinping
Washington

Will China, North Korea back down after Trump’s threats?

Donald Trump's strategy behind the latest US belligerent moves to frighten the Chinese into abandoning North Korea might not be the greatest idea.

Published: April 15, 2017, 12:18 pm

    By threatening war in the Korean Peninsula, Trump has ostensibly offered a peace deal on condition that China abandons its neighbour. By taking China off the US “currency manipulator list”, the US president expects China to make the next move.

    In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Trump said: “They’re not currency manipulators,” explaining that the Treasury Department won’t be blacklisting China. But in return, he is expecting China to abandon North Korea.

    “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the US, with its allies, will!” Trump tweeted.

    In his Contract With the American Voter describing his plan for his first 100 days in office, Trump had pledged: “I will direct the Secretary of the Treasury to label China a currency manipulator.”

    Adding to speculations about using military force against North Korea, the US deployed its largest conventional bomb in Afghanistan yesterday, as a warning to Pyongyang and indirectly to China.

    The Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb or “MOAB” destroyed a bunker built for the CIA in Afghanistan. Edward Snowden noted that the bunker that was bombed was part of the “mujahedeen tunnel networks”. He added that the US had paid for the bunker that Trump had described as an “ISIS” hide out. The US “paid for them,” Snowden tweeted.

    On Thursday evening, NBC News cited US intelligence officials as saying the US could carry out a pre-emptive conventional strike on North Korea.

    China is now facing increasing pressure from the US to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. The Kim Jong Un regime did not carry out another nuclear test or ballistic missile launch on Saturday after Beijing’s warnings to back down.

    Talking to reporters on Friday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said his country was eager to participate in de-escalation talks. Wang called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Friday. “China welcomes close collaboration with Russia to cool down the Korean Peninsula situation as quickly as possible and encourage the involved parties to resume dialogue,” he said, according to China’s Foreign Ministry.

    “If they let war break out on the peninsula, they must shoulder that historical culpability and pay the corresponding price for this,” Wang said.

    China’s national carrier, Air China, suspended flights between Beijing and North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, from Monday amid tensions on the Korean Peninsula involving the United States, Chinese state media said.

    A prominent Chinese state-run newspaper had warned Pyongyang that it would face a cut-off of oil supplies if it had dared to test another nuclear weapon.

    “Whilst it is doubtful that most Chinese think or care much about North Korea, the Chinese leadership would face a severe internal crisis if it appeared to back down in the face of US threats. An actual or pending US attack on North Korea would therefore be far more likely to strengthen Chinese support for North Korea than to weaken it,” says Alexander Mercouris, a specialist in international relations.

    “The US decision to deploy THAAD in South Korea is a disaster for China and it is time China changes its mindset,” Zhao Lingmin, well-known Chinese political commentator recently observed in his column in the online Financial Times ahead of the meeting between Trump and his Chinese counterpart, in Chinese. For that reason both South Korea and Japan do not support a preemptive US strike, fearing increased instability.

    The Russians increased their support for Syria’s President Assad after the US missile strike, Mercouris notes. “As with the bribe of the big trade deal they are now offering China, they also offered the Russians the prospect of better relations with the US to sweeten the deal. In the event the Russians were neither intimidated by the missile strike nor impressed by the bribe. Instead, rather than pulling out of Syria or reducing their support for President Assad, their response was to increase it.”

    China’s position might harden in the face of US aggression against the Asian mainland even if they pretend to play along with US demands. Mercouris believes such a development is now “a virtual certainty”.

    Steven Weber, an international relations specialist from the University of California, Berkeley, said: “If you want regime change in North Korea then you have got to have a plan for how to manage that on the other side of the collapse.” He added that no such arrangement was in place.

    Vox too, noted that Trump’s move might not encourage China to cooperate with the US on North Korea. “A fair number of experts will tell you that trying to connect two completely disparate policy issues isn’t an effective negotiation tactic.”

    North Korea’s vice-foreign minister, Han Song-ryol, told the Associated Press in an interview in Pyongyang that Donald Trump’s “aggressive” tweets aimed at the regime were “causing trouble”.

    It’s difficult to overstate how big of a policy reversal this is for Trump. If the administration had labeled China a currency manipulator, it would have required the Treasury Department to open negotiations with Beijing to try to get it to change its currency and trade practices, augmenting the possibiliy of a trade war between the countries.

    But a trade war would be easier to resolve than a hot war.

    The Global Times, a Chinese Communist party newspaper, urged Trump against carrying out a Syria-style bombing campaign against North Korea. “North Korea is not Syria. It may have the ability to strike South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons,” said Li Jiacheng, a fellow at Liaoning University in north-eastern China.

    He warned that Pyongyang would attack US forces in South Korea and Japan. “What’s more, the war will not be a blitz but a protracted one, which will require a lot of energy from the countries involved.”

    Li added that Trump’s unpredictability was clouding policy in the region.

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