By many accounts, how to cope with Pyongyang’s nuclear threat was the most urgent issue of contention at the US-China summit in Florida on April 6 and April 7.
US President Donald Trump has rejected his predecessor’s “strategic patience” and called for tighter sanctions against North Korea and a tougher approach that include use of force.
However, US missile attacks on Syria’s air base on April 6 abruptly pre-empted and overshadowed most news reports on Trump’s talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平). Consequently, there were only scant reports concerning their deliberation on North Korea and other important issues. On the other hand, Trump’s own Twitter feed was much more informative and revealing.
For example, he posted a message on Tuesday last week: “I explained to the president of China that a trade deal with the US will be far better for them if they solve the North Korea problem.”
A follow-up post said: “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! USA.”
Was Trump disappointed because Xi was noncommittal regarding China’s position?
According to US officials who were privy to the talks, Xi did not offer Trump any public commitments during their dialogue or even in private conversations; the Chinese leader was circumspect.
It is no secret that Trump’s predecessors, US presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, believed China possessed the economic leverage and political influence to force a change in the behavior of Pyongyang’s leadership.
Hence they were apt to “outsource” Pyongyang’s denuclearization to Beijing.
Bush has vividly recounted, in his memoir Decision Points, his efforts to solicit China’s assistance.
In October 2002, Bush invited then-general secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Jiang Zemin (江澤民) to visit his Crawford ranch in Texas, and suggested that the US and China combined their influence to stop North Korea’s nuclear program.
Jiang was respectful, Bush said, “but he told me North Korea was my problem, not his.”
“Exercising influence over North Korea is very complicated,” Jiang said.
After further futile discussion, Bush bluntly warned Jiang in February 2003 that “if we cannot solve the problem diplomatically, I would have to consider a military strike against North Korea.”
Was Bush bluffing?
Jiang felt he must take Bush’s warning seriously and could no longer dismiss it in a cavalier manner. After all, US troops moved into Iraq the following month. There was widespread speculation in international media that North Korea, a member of the “axis of evil,” like Iraq, could be the next target of a US attack.
An apprehensive South Korean government even dispatched its minister of foreign affairs to Washington to argue against use of force on the Korean Peninsula.
It is in this context that Beijing decided to intervene forcefully. Its primary concern was to forestall US military strikes against North Korea, which could result in uncontrollable and undesirable consequences — the collapse of then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s regime, the installation of a pro-Western government and hundreds of thousand of refuges flowing across the Chinese border.
Hence, Beijing suggested a plan to convene and host a regional conference to peacefully resolve North Korea’s nuclear program.