President Xi Jinping of China and President Trump are set to have their first high-stakes meeting this week in Florida. Against the backdrop of North Korea’s medium-range missile launch on Tuesday, issues of trade and disputes over islands in the South China Sea will likely be overshadowed by discussions of China’s longstanding support for North Korea.
The characteristically “strained” relationship between the US and China has arguably reached an critical test with the election of Donald Trump. President Trump has a long history of attacking China and its trade relations with the US, memorably declaring that “[Americans] can’t allow China to rape our country.” President Trump also questioned the US’s “One-China policy” by calling Taiwan’s leader a month after his election. Eventually, after an evident souring of Sino-American relations, President Trump backed-down and agreed to honor the “One-China policy.”
What is likely to define Sino-American relations under the Trump administration, however, is North Korean aggression and the extent to which the Chinese choose to exert their influence over their ally to act in accordance with international norms. The palpable shift in US policy towards North Korea has been embodied by a senior White House Official’s declaration that the “clock has run out” on North Korea’s nuclear program and that “all options are on the table.” Secretary Tillerson’s unusually brief statement on the North Korean missile launch on Tuesday was seen as an attempt by the administration to convey a tough signal.
Sungmin Cho, a PhD candidate at Georgetown University and expert on Chinese politics, discussed the implications of the administration’s recent moves.
Cho noted that recent comments that emanated from the Trump administration on North Korea are supposed to convey that “military action such as a surgical strike” is on the table. Since any US military action against North Korea could very easily provoke a much larger conflict, Cho suggested that the administration’s response may serve other aims.
“The Trump administration’s aggressive rhetoric can be interpreted as a tactic to influence Chinese strategic thinking,” he said.
In effect, the Trump administration, whether intentionally or not, is signaling to China the need to rein in their North Korean ally or face the prospect of US military action on the Korean peninsula.
Of course, the US tactic may do more harm than good if the Chinese view the Trump administration’s threat of military action as a bluff and refrain from forcing North Korea to stop acting belligerently. North Korea, Cho warns, “may feel more threatened” by the Trump administration’s policy shift and act more dangerously.
If one thing is clear, however, it is that it is up to President Trump and President Xi Jinping to avoid conflict. With the stakes as high as ever, the US-Chinese relationship likely faces its greatest test: confronting the threat of North Korea.