It’s not too early to sound alarm bells about the downward turn in US-China relations. Trump’s evident frustration with China over its presumed failure to rein in North Korea has already led to a number of steps that have rankled Beijing. These include a State Department report on human trafficking that includes sharp criticism of China’s denial of human rights; statements from the administration about China’s unfair trade practices; a major US arms sale to Taiwan; and a US frigate’s sail-by in South China Sea waters close to Chinese-claimed territory.
A phone call on July 3 from Trump to Xi Jinping comforted the Chinese leader on one point: Trump’s pledge to continue to honor the “One China” principle and prior US-China understandings regarding Taiwan. But even on that point, and no doubt with the $1.4 billion arms sale in mind, Xi reportedly said he “hopes the US will properly handle the Taiwan-related issues in accordance with the one-China principle and the three Sino-US joint communiqués.” Xi also said that while US-China relations had “achieved important results” since his meeting with Trump at Mar-a-lago, “at the same time, the two countries’ relations had been influenced by some negative factors.”
On the face of it, the Xi-Trump conversation seems like a positive exchange. But the Chinese account does not mention that Trump, according to a New York Times report today, also warned China that the US may have to take unilateral steps in dealing with North Korea, which has just tested another long-range ballistic (nuclear-weapons-capable) missile. That warning will only accomplish two things: It will tell China that the brief honeymoon in US-China cooperation is over, and will show once again that Washington has failed to learn the lesson of years past that China cannot, and will not, pressure Kim Jong-un to cease nuclear and missile tests and denuclearize.
Trump has said that Obama’s North Korea policy of “strategic patience” is dead. But Trump’s threat of military action against the North is worse. The Chinese have put forward a “freeze-for-freeze” proposal—a halt to US military exercises on the Korean peninsula in exchange for a halt to North Korean weapons tests—that makes far more sense. Only direct US-North Korea dialogue holds any prospect of reducing the risk of an unprecedented calamitous war.