My response: Donald Trump’s tweets, first importuning China’s Xi Jinping to resolve the issue of North Korea’s nuclear missile program, then reproaching Xi in coarse language, demonstrate the absurdity and infantilism that has come to define Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump does not have a sense of geopolitics, nor is he a statesman. His core base may view this as an asset—it distances him from the Beltway elite and marginalizes mainstream news which he views as spurious. But when negotiating with world leaders who have a keen sense of the extant stratagems employed, Trump’s petulance and lack of perspicacity leave him at a severe disadvantage.
Understanding China’s economic and political ambitions is key to understanding her relationship with North Korea. Even Mr. Trump had to admit that “after listening for 10 minutes [to Xi during his visit to the White House] I realized it’s not so easy.”(1)
China is a member of the IMF but has only 3.8% of the voting share—the same power as Italy, whose economy is five times smaller. As a consequence, China has sought to develop its own set of financial institutions and build Free Trade Agreements (FTA) with countries in its emerging sphere of influence in the South China Sea.(2) It is, therefore, in China’s best interests to maintain stability in the region.
Recently, Beijing has been less conciliatory toward Pyongyang. This past February, China banned the import of coal from North Korea.(3) The Communist Party of China’s mouthpiece, the Global Times, threatened that China could halt petroleum exports to North Korea, a move that would cripple the North Korean economy given it imports nearly all of its crude oil from China.(4)
In light of this, for Trump to characterize Xi’s efforts as “useless” is not only insulting, but a clear indication of his paucity of thought.
Toppling the Pyongyang regime would unleash internal chaos, a flood of refugees across China’s eastern border, and a humanitarian crisis, none of which Beijing could manage. It would also likely expand the reach of the South Korean government across the entire peninsula, thus putting an armed ally of the United States—and U.S. troops—at the edge of Chinese territory(5), a situation Beijing would not tolerate.
In an interview with the Financial Times shortly before his April meeting with Xi, Trump said, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.”(5) How does he plan to do that? A preemptive strike?
Any attempt to resolve the crisis militarily would be disastrous. North Korea has an enormous array of artillery rockets, hundreds of them infused with chemical weapons, and all of them within range of Seoul—the capital of South Korea, just 35 miles south of the border.(5) Twenty million people live within 25 miles of the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
Further still, many of these weapons are within range of Japan and of American troops in the region, placing hundreds of thousands of lives within harm’s way.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may be erratic, but he’s not suicidal. He is aware that a small number of American nuclear missiles could obliterate his country.
What he does appear to want is for North Korea to be recognized as nuclear weapons-capable, similar to Pakistan. Given that status, he would be willing to come to the negotiating table. Kim could then parlay his country’s stance and participate in non-proliferation pacts in exchange for what his country desperately needs—food, economic aid and trade.
Until Trump realizes this, his own erratic tweets and bellicose posturing serve only to exacerbate tensions—not only in the Pacific Rim but throughout the world.