The conventional narrative on U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to China is that it may have enhanced his personal chemistry with Xi Jinping and the atmospherics of the U.S.-China relationship, but it accomplished little of substance.
Based on the public comments, no harm was done to Taiwan’s interests — as happened with President Bill Clinton’s Three Nos in 1998 — or to the U.S. position on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. But there was also no specific indication of progress on the most critical issue facing the two governments: North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
Instead, media and expert commentary have focused on Trump’s lavish praise for both the warmth of the Chinese reception and his stated confidence that Xi is indeed cooperating on North Korea and other issues.
There is some evidence to support Trump’s guarded optimism. First, North Korea has conducted no nuclear tests and has fired no missiles since September 15. Despite earlier threats to launch missiles toward Guam and to detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific, Kim Jong-un has limited his most recent behavior to hurling personal insults at the U.S. president. Has Beijing finally tightened the screws on Pyongyang enough to induce restraint? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during the Asia trip that the sanctions are “creating some stress within North Korea’s economy and with some of their citizens, potentially even within some of their military.”
Public statements from official and unofficial Chinese sources suggest a possible fundamental shift in Beijing’s policy toward Pyongyang. For the entire history of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, China has provided its Communist ally not only diplomatic cover against meaningful economic sanctions but also technical, logistical, and financial support that directly enabled those programs. Beijing benefited geostrategically as North Korea provided a major distraction for the West, even while positioning China as a responsible international stakeholder and indispensable partner.
But now that the Trump administration has ended American tolerance for Beijing’s double game and conveyed a serious intent to use force, China has drawn its own line against Pyongyang’s provocations. Liu Jieyi, China’s United Nations ambassador, told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that “China will never allow chaos and war on the peninsula.” China’s semi-official organ Global Times stated in an editorial, “If North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. soil first and the U.S. retaliates, China will stay neutral.”
That is a significant contrast to China’s “lips and teeth” intervention in the Korean War, which brought U.S. forces into North Korea advancing toward the Chinese border. The Global Times seemed to allude to that experience when it added this sentence: “If the U.S. and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.”
What was left unsaid in the two communications was equally important in signaling possible Chinese intentions — i.e., Beijing might well tolerate a preventive U.S.-ROK military action confined to eliminating the nuclear and missile threat but not threatening regime change. It is even conceivable that Xi will accept Kim’s removal as long as China plays the major role in replacing him.
Xi’s success in achieving Mao-like supremacy at the 19th Party Congress has given him the freedom to act more boldly in preventing Pyongyang from further souring Beijing’s relations with Washington. His private assurances to the U.S. president may well account for Trump’s comments, which were both upbeat and firmly expectant of positive results. With Xi at his side, he stated:
China can fix this problem easily and quickly, and I am calling on China and your great president to hopefully work on it very hard. I know one thing about your president: If he works on it hard, it will happen. There’s no doubt about it.
It is not unreasonable to conclude that Trump expects Xi to deliver in one of two ways. Under Plan A, China will continue its financial and economic squeeze until Kim agrees to scrap his nuclear and missile programs. If that does not yield the desired outcome, Plan B is for Beijing to stand by as the United States and South Korea “surgically” destroy those capabilities.
In fact, no less an authority on Chinese thinking than Trump adviser Henry Kissinger has suggested that kind of Washington-Beijing cooperation on a kinetic solution. During a 1994 interview, in one of his many defenses of China’s tolerance of the North Korean problem, Kissinger speculated that Beijing was passive “because they figure we will take care of the problem and they can take a free ride.”
Kissinger went further, saying that he himself once believed the United States should unilaterally “knock out the nuclear capability of North Korea, if necessary even by aerial strikes.” But he said he now thought it would be “too dangerous for us to do this alone given the general mentality that now exists in Washington and unwillingness to support it.” Nevertheless, Kissinger went one, we should “tell China that we are willing to go as far as you are willing to go in doing away with the nuclear capability… including a blockade and total economic isolation.”
With a new administration and a new “general mentality” in Washington, Kissinger’s prescription may fall on more receptive ears. He is certainly in an advantageous position to advance that recommendation. Trump, having ridiculed Hillary Clinton during the campaign for seeking national security advice from Richard Nixon’s former secretary of state, now relies heavily on Kissinger on China issues, even establishing a separate communications back-channel to Beijing between Kissinger and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.
Kissinger, now 93, is as intellectually active as ever and physically capable of shuttling between Washington and Beijing to advise both American presidents and Chinese supreme leaders on their respective national security interests. He almost certainly would welcome the opportunity to vindicate that often-criticized dual-hatted representation by facilitating a solution to the North Korea danger that benefits both China and the United States. It would be the crowning achievement of his brilliant and controversial career.
If he and President Trump can pull it off, we should all give praise.
Joseph Bosco is a former China country director in the office of the secretary of defense, 2005-2006.