If empirical evidence has been so far lacking as regards the bombastic claim by US President Donald Trump that China – and its leader President Xi Jinping personally – has been «helping» the United States to address the North Korea crisis, a terrible beauty was born this week, which provides a clue. On Wednesday, Pyongyang opened heavy artillery against Beijing, with the North’s state news agency admonishing China by name for exacerbating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The fusillade is an exceptional happening. It is lethal and intended to wound China’s prestige. If Mao Zedong had once said that China and North Korea were «closer than teeth and lips», it now seems the teeth have torn into the lips and reddish bruises are appearing.
The Pyongyang commentary, attributed to someone named Kim Chol, using an abbreviation for the North's official name, said: «DPRK will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China, risking its nuclear program which is as precious as its own life, no matter how valuable the friendship is».
To be sure, Pyongyang senses the dramatic shift in the Chinese stance on the North Korea problem and sees that shift, as reflected in the commentaries by People’s Daily and Global Times newspapers – «widely known as media speaking for the official stand of the Chinese party and government» – as signifying «a wanton violation of the independent and legitimate rights, dignity and supreme interests of the DPRK».
If Trump’s team has been looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack to figure out the true Chinese intentions on North Korea, here it is in the North’s fury toward Beijing.
The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, while addressing a gathering at Faggy Bottom on Wednesday, had candidly discussed the US’ expectations from China with regard to the «serious situation in North Korea», which he called the «greatest threat… right on the doorstep» confronting Trump administration on the foreign policy arena.
Tillerson said he told Trump to test the «assumption… that China has limited influence on the regime in Pyongyang, or they have a limited willingness to assert their influence». He suggested to Trump that Washington should test Beijing’s intentions by «leaning on them, and this (North Korea) is a good place to start our engagement with China».
Tillerson called it «a pressure campaign that has a knob on it». He said the Trump administration’s strategy is at about «dial setting 5 or 6 right now» with the strong call by the US to implement the UN Security Council resolutions on sanctions – while also preparing additional sanctions – to pile pressure on Pyongyang.
At the same time, US has also made it clear that «this is not about regime change, this is not about regime collapse, this is not about an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, this is not about us (Washington) looking for an excuse to come north of the 38th Parallel».
Tillerson summed up that while the US will not «negotiate our way to the negotiating table», there is no ambivalence that « We’ll sit down when they’re ready to sit down under the right terms».
Tillerson assessed that at this point in time, through «about the 20 to 25 percent of this strategy», the response of countries (like China) «is going like what we had hoped for».Clearly, Trump administration is pleased with China’s constructive role. And Trump has reciprocated, too.
Trump brushed aside as simply preposterous that the US would choose the present juncture to label China as currency manipulator. He has vowed to adhere to «One China policy». The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is dead and the US’ «rebalance» in Asia has become a relic of history.
The White House will not challenge China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The US defence department officials admit that in the 100 days into the Trump presidency, no US Navy ship has gone within 12 miles of any of the disputed islands in the South China Sea.
The New York Times reported last week that a specific request by the US Pacific Command made six weeks ago to the Pentagon seeking permission for an American warship to sail within 12 nautical miles of the Scarborough Shoal was turned down. The Pentagon did not even bother to refer the matter to the White House.
Don’t the countries of the Asia-Pacific take note? Conceivably, it found expression in the softer stance taken by the recent ASEAN summit in Manila (April 26-29) regarding South China Sea. The ASEAN dropped the previous summits’ references to «land reclamation and militarization» from its chairman's statement.
Beijing is pleased with the outcome. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang noted, «The relevant situation at this ASEAN summit again fully shows the positive changes in the South China Sea situation and that the joint wish of countries in this region is to seek stability, promote cooperation and seek development, and this should be respected and supported by all sides».
Interestingly, Trump administration didn’t attempt to queer the pitch at the ASEAN summit. Unlike the routine practice by the Barack Obama administration to butt in, Washington displayed benign indifference.
Thus, at the annual US-ASEAN Senior Officials Dialogue at foreign minister level, which Tillerson hosted in Washington on May 4, South China Sea took a back seat, giving way to North Korea as the top agenda item.
From the stated department briefing, Tillerson voiced no direct or indirect criticism of China as regards South China Sea. Significantly, Trump administration no longer differentiates between China and the ASEAN countries – «all relevant parties» – when it comes to «militarisation, construction and reclamation of land in the South China Sea area while talks are going on, while there are peaceful efforts, dialogue, to achieve a lasting solution».
The Trump administration regards the China-ASEAN dialogue on South China Sea as «a positive» and it counsels that «while that process is going, let’s give it room, let’s give it space, so it’s unencumbered…»
If the efficacy of the US-China cooperation over North Korea gets tested successfully through the next several months – even as the remaining 75-80 percent of the Trump administration’s strategy toward North Korea unfolds – we may see wider application in other areas and regions for the new type of relationship between the two big powers.
In Asia itself, there are «hotspots» such as Afghanistan or Kashmir where the Trump administration may see advantage in taking Chinese help in conflict resolution efforts.