President Trump’s unpredictable style is threatening to keep China off-balance at a critical meeting this weekend where North Korea will be on the agenda.
Trump has kept China guessing about his intentions with comments that have run the gamut leading up to the summit.
“So much for China working with us — but we had to give it a try!” Trump tweeted on Wednesday.
A day later, Trump suggested he hasn’t abandoned the idea of working with China.
“Never give up,” Trump told reporters in Germany when asked if he’s given up on working with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
It contrasts like that that have left the Chinese scratching their heads.
“I think that the Chinese are perplexed by what it is that the United States government wants from China,” said David Pressman, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for political affairs who now works at the Boies Schiller Flexner LLP law firm.
“I think President Trump’s tweets on this issue lend more confusion than they do clarity with regards to our expectations of China,” Pressman added.
Curbing North Korea’s missile and nuclear capabilities took on a new urgency when Pyongyang earlier this week successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time.
Experts have long said Beijing is best positioned to rein in Pyongyang as its biggest trading partner and the closest thing to an ally.
But, they add, China has and will refrain from exerting all the pressure it can for fear of causing North Korea to collapse — which would create a refugee crisis on its border.
Questions about what Trump is up to have been raised even as he has made moves that would be routine for an American administration.
On Thursday, for example, Trump huddled with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over dinner to discuss North Korea. Xi was not invited — which led to some media scrutiny.
Officials described the dinner as one between close allies and said the no broader message was being sent by not inviting Xi.
“This a trilateral dinner between three allies who share common interests working together to address the North Korea threat,” said Michael Anton, National Security Council spokesman. “It was always planned that way. It’s part of a long tradition of such meetings.”
The Japanese Embassy in D.C. likewise said the dinner was meant as one between the three close allies and that by definition China would not be invited to such a meeting.
“But regardless of the format, it is time now that the international community unites in sending a strong message to China that it is the responsibility of China, who has the unique leverage, to force [North Korea] to abandon its course,” embassy spokesman Tamaki Tsukada added in an email.
Trump initially seemed to think he could win over Xi with a mix of pressure and flattery. He challenged the Chinese leader with the possibility of tougher trade sanctions, but then wined and dined him at Mar-a-Lago in April.
The effort was intended to win Chinese help on North Korea.
As Pyongyang has continued its saber-rattling, Trump has lashed out at China.
“I think they are concerned about the president of United States and that he would do something not anticipated,” said Robert Gallucci, the chief U.S. negotiator during the North Korean nuclear crisis of 1994. “The Chinese want to moderate North Korea’s behavior, but they won’t really put the screws on.”
Rather than forcing North Korea to change, China is looking at the issue as a chance to get concessions from the United States, Gallucci said.
He pointed to China and Russia’s joint statement calling for an end to U.S.-South Korean military exercises in exchange for North Korea suspending its nuclear and missile tests.
“The Chinese will try to push us on this,” he said. “They are very worried about the United States bringing naval, ground and air capabilities to their doorstep. They do not want that. A win would be to get the United States and [South Korea] to dial back military exercises.”
Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, likewise said China’s primary concern is weakening the U.S.-Japanese-South Korean alliance.
Mount also said that Trump’s initial rhetoric concerned China, but that rhetoric from other administration officials in recent days has been more toned down.
“So China is trying to figure out what to make of U.S. policy,” he added, “like most of Washington is.”
Source: The Hill