Trump’s gamble, China’s gain

Trump’s unilateralism in East Asia increasingly benefits China.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met China's President Xi Jinping three times in less than 100 days [Reuters]
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met China's President Xi Jinping three times in less than 100 days [Reuters]

On his way home from the Singapore summit, US President Donald Trump announced in an interview for Fox News that he would be taking strong action on trade, saying that China was likely to be “a little bit upset“. And indeed, three days later his administration slapped Chinese goods with a 25-percent tariff, provoking a sharp reaction from Beijing.

That was despite China’s support and assistance with the North Korea issue in the lead up to the Singapore summit. For Trump, trade disputes, multilateral engagement and the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula appear to be distinct, unrelated issues. In his unilateral world, there is little connection between geoeconomics and geopolitics.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has adopted a completely different approach to global politics and economy, which seems to be paying off with every unilateral action Trump takes on the international arena. This seems to be the case with US engagement of North Korea as well.

Denuclearising North Korea and retaining leverage

Although China was not invited to the Singapore summit, it welcomed its outcome. Soon after, China called for sanctions on North Korea to be eased and for “a peace mechanism” to be established.

On the sanctions front, the Chinese leadership has already engaged Russia, which has expressed its approval of the move. And to set up a peace mechanism, it plans to reach out to various concerned parties to create a multinational framework in which Beijing takes centre-stage.

The centrality of China in the future process of denuclearising North Korea was confirmed by the fact that Kim Jong-un set out for another visit to Beijing right after the Singapore summit (his third visit to China in less than 100 days).

The visit debunks the narrative of an anxious Beijing concerned about being sidelined after the Singapore summit. Chinese and North Korean state media were full of praise for the summit. In fact, Chinese state media went to some lengths in defending its outcomes, with the usually nationalistic tabloid, the Global Times, urging critical US media commentators to “grasp the full picture.” More importantly, state media reports indicate that Beijing and Pyongyang have moved beyond the differences of the past few years.

Xinhua reported that Kim referred to the bilateral relationship as being familial, while Xi offered “affectionate care and support” for North Korean people. The Chinese president also alluded to what he said was a “major decision” by Kim “to shift the focus to economic construction”.

The Korean Central News Agency, meanwhile, reported that Kim promised to bolster “strategic and tactical” cooperation to secure “true peace” on the Korean Peninsula.

This type of official rhetoric implies that Beijing comprehends the limitations of the ideological camaraderie of the past in today’s unstable international environment. It is, therefore, positioning China as a developmental model – one-party-rule, accompanied by state-guided capitalism – for an aspirational Kim to follow.

From establishing economic zones to construction, mining, energy, agriculture, transport and finance, there is a range of sectors for possible cooperation between China and North Korea. In this sense, Xi is stealing a march on Trump, who decided to “illustrate” what North Korea of the future could be with an amateurish video he showed to Kim at the summit.

China seems on its way to achieving its primary objective on the Korean Peninsula: denuclearisation – without losing leverage over Pyongyang. It is not clear what the Trump administration will get out of it, other than a foreign policy “victory” flag to wave before the midterm elections.

Capitalising on US as an unreliable ally

Moreover, Xi’s approach also furthers the broader narrative of a China that is open to deeper multilateral engagement and that is offering a governance model alternative to the one that the transactional and increasingly protectionist US is pushing with its withdrawal from multilateral institutions and agreements.

More specifically in East Asia, Trump’s decision to halt US-South Korea military drills in exchange for Kim’s pledge to work towards denuclearisation also strengthens Beijing’s hand. The move seems to reflect China’s original “dual suspension” proposal. In fact, according to a report in The Asahi Shimbun, the suspension of military drills was a specific demand that Xi had asked Kim to place before Trump during the May 7 meeting between the two.

In addition, Trump saying that the US-South Korea drills were “provocative” and “expensive” also works well for Beijing. It signals to friendly East Asian states that Washington’s reliability as an ally should be seriously questioned. US regional allies are now likely asking themselves whether the US is indeed willing to play the long game and shoulder the real costs of countering China’s influence in the region.

This is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the US security strategy under Trump. On one hand, the Trump administration identifies China as a revisionist power and promises to deepen partnerships with allies. On the other, it repeatedly complaints about costs and talks about greater burden-sharing.

A weakening of the US alliance system in East Asia and imposition of tariffs, which affect countries like South Korea and Japan, opens new opportunities for China. 

Beijing is already moving to capitalise on this. It is putting effort into normalising its relations with South Korea after last year’s disagreement over the deployment of the THAAD missile system and mending fences with Japan after six years of bitterness over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute.

In May, Premier Li Keqiang also visited Japan to restart the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral dialogue, which was suspended since 2015. In addition, this week Beijing also announced the lowering of tariffs on imports from a number of countries, including South Korea.

China seems to be winning with every move Trump makes in East Asia. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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