China can tolerate the US on NK

By Albert Shihyi Chiu 邱師儀  / 

Thu, Apr 20, 2017 - Page 8

The US has for a long time maintained the capability to wage wars in two regions at the same time. Just six days after launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian government air base on April 7, on Thursday last week a US warplane dropped a 9525kg massive ordnance air blast bomb dubbed the “mother of all bombs” on an Islamic State target in eastern Afghanistan.

The Syrian air strike took place during US President Donald Trump’s dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), and Trump has twice called on Xi to handle North Korea, saying that otherwise the US would do the job itself.

Meanwhile, a US Navy strike group, including the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, was deployed toward the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea has threatened to meet this challenge head-on, causing the clouds of war to suddenly gather over northeast Asia.

Several high-ranking figures in the US military have said that if the US detects North Korea test-firing a missile, the US military would launch warplanes from Guam to bomb the nation.

Although the US military expects that would in that case launch an attack against South Korea and that Japan would also get caught up in the conflict, there is still a strong possibility of the US taking unilateral action.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose relationship with Trump has recently soured, is of course strongly opposed to any such action.

Meanwhile, China is sticking to its softly-softly approach.

China hopes the US will not act in anger and has been trying to calm things down by urging North Korea to exercise restraint.

China also unexpectedly abstained from voting on a UN Security Council draft resolution on Thursday last week denouncing the Syrian government for allegedly attacking civilians with chemical weapons. China’s abstention put it closer to the US.

The Xi-Trump meeting has brought about a thaw in US-China relations. Xi’s reaction to Trump’s missile attack on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces has been subdued, while Trump has adjusted his view of China in a positive direction.

This makes for an interesting sequence of events. Following President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) congratulatory telephone call to Trump on Dec. 2 last year, which underlined the government’s US-friendly stance, now that Xi has met Trump, even China has shown signs of getting closer to the US and distancing itself from Russia.

On Wednesday last week the Chinese Communist Party-linked Global Times tabloid published an editorial warning North Korea that “the Korean Peninsula has never been so close to a military clash since the North conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.”

The editorial accused North Korea of “aggravating” the situation and said that its “weapons program ... is reaching a tipping point.”

It said that “China will not remain indifferent to Pyongyang’s aggravating violation of the UN Security Council resolution” and the Chinese public would like to see this issue brought to an end.

China might still have worries about the refugee problem that could follow if the US brings down North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and it is concerned about a possibly pro-US unified Korea.

However, if Trump’s US resorts to military action against North Korea, would China still dare to shield its ally? China must realize that doing so could put it in an untenable position, because on the North Korean issue, Trump is not like former US presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton or even George W. Bush.

The key question is: What good it would do the US for Trump to intervene in North Korea?

US policy toward North Korea has passed through many stages since then-US president George H.W. Bush’s appeasement of the country in 1992.

We have seen Clinton’s food aid and George W. Bush’s inclusion of North Korea in his “axis of evil,” followed by a show of goodwill before leaving office.

Obama avoided provoking Kim after the death of his father in 2011.

Throughout this time the US has time and again put up with North Korea’s provocative behavior, including nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and mass counterfeiting of US dollars. Now that Trump is following a path of “America first” and unilateral action, it is hard to see what value North Korea has for him.

If it does have any value, it would be later on as a card to play in trade negotiations between the US and China.

For China, the issue of Taiwan is more important than that of North Korea, so for the time being it can only cooperate with Trump on the North Korean issue, thereby putting off any opportunity for Trump to cross China’s red line by playing the Taiwan card.

Albert Shihyi Chiu is an associate professor of political science at Tunghai University.

Translated by Julian Clegg