In just 23 words, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reacted on Tuesday to news that North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the sea off the Korean Peninsula, just days before President Donald Trump is due to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping for a two-day summit in Florida. "North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment."
According to a press briefing at the White House this week, a senior administration official said that the purpose of the April 6-7 summit meeting is to set up a framework for discussions on trade and finance. Even so, North Korea may also be among the issues to come up in the bilateral discussions at Mar-a-Lago. China’s forays into the South China Sea, where it is building bases for naval and aviation assets on islands that it has dredged out of the sea, may also come up in the talks. And as he did during a Wednesday press briefing where he gave a read-out of his summit meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Trump may very well say during the two-day visit by Xi that he “inherited a mess” from Barack Obama with regard to relations with China.
The mess Trump inherited
And by all accounts, American influence in Asia declined significantly in Asia during the Obama administration. China has continued to build its bases in the South China Sea, heedless of the U.S., and even the president of the Philippines has taking to mock Trump and the US. And the U.S. continues to be just as dependent on Chinese manufacturers as it is in China's purchases of Treasury bonds.
While Chris Cillizza of CNN was querulous at Tillerson’s remarks about North Korea, what Tillerson kept to himself speaks volumes. Cilizza wrote in an article titled "Rex Tillerson's incredibly odd and confusing statement on North Korea," “That's a total of 23 words,if you're counting. Twenty-three words that leave you more confused when you get to the end of them than when you started. Is Tillerson trying to talk tough? Or is he refusing to give North Korea the attention he thinks they're trying to grab in advance of the US-China meeting? Somewhere in between? Neither? Both?”
As a coda to his piece, Cilizza added that as the top diplomat for the Trump administration, Tillerson’s “...most important job is to ensure that other countries know exactly where the US stands when a major international event -- like the one in North Korea -- occurs. His statement Tuesday night suggests he simply doesn't grasp just how much words matter.”
While at face value, Tillerson’s terse remark could be interpreted as a message to both China and North Korea that the time for diplomatic parlor games is over, what remains to be seen is what exactly Trump can actually do to sway those two countries. North Korea appears to be bent upon the idea of achieving nuclear power. "China has great influence over North Korea," Trump said in an interview this week. "And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won't ... If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you." That is certainly tough talk, but what can Trump actually deliver?
Military options for the United States are limited. A nuclear option is unlikely. The U.S. considered using atomic weapons against North Korea in 1951 but did not resort to them. The fact that America had nuclear-capable bombers at Guam at that time did not seem to bother the Chinese then, and the prospect of a much larger nuclear force today does not appear to faze the Chinese today.
According to CNBC, Greg Valliere of Horizon Investments said that while a pre-emptive military strike by the U.S. is not out of the question, now that Trump and officials are increasingly bellicose in that statements about North Korea. However, said Valliere, "The generals have made it clear a military option has big risks. There's big risks of this spinning out of control," said Valliere.
The unnamed senior administration official signalled this week a willingness on the part of the Trump administration to try new options with regard to North Korea. He said that the administration wants to work “together” with North Korea as “an opportunity. And, in some ways, it's really -- we've been left, after 20-some-odd years of trying pretty much everything, to bring about a safe and denuclearized peninsula. And so this is, in some ways, a test of the relationship, I think.”
Trump is nevertheless interested in seeing some resolution to the missile testing by North Korea. Military analysts note that North Korea intends to build and test this year a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the United States, which is an unacceptable development for the West. Military analysts say that North Korea is apparently various components of such a missile and has had progressive successes.
Killing two birds with one stone
While military options may be limited, the prospect of making headway on trade is more promising. Trade with China, as well as the TPP trade agreement, were topics repeatedly brought up by Trump on the campaign trail. Trump said last year that China continues to “rape” the U.S. on trade and currency manipulation. As admitted by a senior administration official at the press briefing at the White House on April 4, Trump can be expected to press on the matter of trade and the barriers put up by China to U.S.-banking and other businesses. Because China accounts for approximately 90 percent of North Korea’s trade, it is in the trade arena where China has leverage.
Trump underscored the importance of the trade issue in a tweet last week, writing "The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits." And it is in trade affairs where Trump may be able to kill two birds with one stone. While he has made some provocative statements about China, Trump has shown himself to be pragmatic. For example, while he signed two executive orders last week that are aimed at addressing the causes of U.S. trade deficits, he has shown himself to be malleable with regard to U.S. policy towards Taiwan and to China’s forays in the South China Sea.
While some analysts have evaluated his career thus far in government as disconcerting or amateur, the disruption he is causing in the diplomatic sphere may play to Trump’s advantage. Trump’s vaunted negotiating tactics, whereby he finds and then presses upon his opponent’s weakest points, may offer Trump victory in the area in which he has been most insistent -- trade -- while offering some face-saving for Xi.
Xi has already cut coal purchases from North Korea, which amount to 35 percent of the latter’s country’s foreign exchange. And a worsening of the situation there could mean a massive influx of refugees from North Korea into China. The disruption caused by the sudden arrival of thousands of North Koreans in China’s southernmost region could negatively affect Xi’s prestige at home and thus his political influence. By pressuring Xi on bilateral trade issues, but allowing China to find a solution to North Korea on its own, Trump could achieve the result of bolstering his own credibility at home while offering a win-win to Xi.
And by placing North Korea under its own nuclear umbrella rather than allowing the playboy Kim Jong-un to continue his erratic career as leader of North Korea, China may thus provide the strategic stability in the region that both the United States, Japan, and other allies are seeking.
Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.