Donald Trump’s June 20 tweet on China was not your average Trump missive. He wrote: “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!”
No bombast … no threats … no defensiveness — just a giant guilt trip on Beijing. I am no fan of this president’s tweets, but there appears to be some method to this particular madness. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis hosted their Chinese counterparts in Washington on June 21-22 for the first U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, announced by the president and China’s Xi Jinping at their April Mar-a-Lago summit. The Chinese went into the meeting hoping to secure American agreement on a U.S.-China strategic partnership of some kind and to convince the administration to offer a freeze-for-freeze deal under which Pyongyang stops testing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles and the United States and South Korea agree to scale back military exercises.
The Trump administration, in contrast, is growing skeptical that Beijing will deliver serious pressure on Pyongyang before the president’s 100-day deadline for action. The administration had specific asks of China, such as shutting down 10 Chinese entities cooperating with Pyongyang in violation of U.N. Security Council sanctions. Trump’s tweet suggests that Beijing has not been forthcoming. Meanwhile, the death of Otto Warmbier after 18 months of isolation in a North Korean prison cell only adds to White House impatience. It certainly appears that the June 20 tweet was calculated to pressure Beijing going into the talks with Mattis and Tillerson. It is not known if the tweet worked — Tillerson said only that the Chinese were “working it” — but the whiff of greater realism on China was refreshing.
On the other hand, the tweet comes at a time when Asia is completely confused about what the Trump administration’s China policy is. The president has suggested that Beijing might get a better deal on trade if China helps on North Korea. That had nervous allies, democracy advocates, and U.S. military leaders wondering what else might be put on the table. There has been only one Freedom of Navigation operation in the South China Sea, for example, and no notification of arms sales to Taiwan as expected. Then last week, Tillerson mused in his congressional testimony about the need to establish a strategic relationship with China that will last for 50 years. That sounded to many observers like the same logic Xi Jinping uses to argue for a “new model of great power relations” or comparable strategic bargain to avoid the “Thucydides trap” of great power conflict. The subtext, of course, is that the grand bargain would have to involve the United States accommodating China in Asia at the expense of our traditional allies and partners. The fact that the State Department’s official blog titled the April Trump-Xi Summit as “US-China Relations: Ensuring an Enduring Alliance for the Future,” showed how tone deaf the parts of the administration still are to real allies. Meanwhile, governments across Asia continue to watch closely the relationship between Jared Kushner and Chinese entities, knowing that the Beijing has established a channel to the White House through the president’s son-in-law.
The administration has done some important things in Asia: Senior Japanese leaders view Shinzo Abe’s relationship with Trump and his national security team as exponentially better than where they ended up with the Obama team. Likewise, the demonstration of American military power near North Korea is welcomed by allies who viewed the Obama administration’s strategic patience with Pyongyang as limp-wristed. But as Winston Churchill might have said, the administration’s pudding “has no theme” — and it is obvious that Beijing is working hard to define one that works to its advantage.
So if the president’s tweet represents a new realism about China — and if it was done with the intention of backing Tillerson and Mattis going into the talks this week — then that would be a good thing. One would prefer that American declaratory policy would take a form that allows for more than 140 characters, but we will have to take what we can get.
By Mike Green