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In Iran and North Korea, China Holds Some Cards

Donald Trump made his television reputation by telling people “You’re fired.” The same bullying approach now substitutes for his international diplomacy, with Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran and cancelation of the summit with North Korea the latest examples. In both cases, Trump is convinced that “maximum pressure” will eventually bring those countries’ leaders around. Far more likely is that they won’t, and China will be one of the beneficiaries.

I have argued for many years that positive US-China relations create opportunities for cooperative diplomacy in Asia and beyond, whereas negative relations undermine those opportunities. Trump’s demands that China revise its trade and foreign investment practices are among the reasons US relations with Beijing are at another low point these days. Trump may prattle about his good personal relations with Xi Jinping, but the reality is that the Chinese leadership resents the strong-armed US approach and has no intention of bending to it. Instead, expect Beijing to urge continued diplomatic efforts with Iran and North Korea while increasing its influence with them and various US allies.

In the Iran case, Trump hopes the re-imposition of US sanctions will lead state oil companies such as China’s to dramatically reduce purchases of Iranian oil. Under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Europeans and just about everyone else bowed to US pressure and cut back on Iran’s exports. But that is unlikely to happen again, since all the parties to the Iran nuclear deal are upset with Trump’s decision and are looking for ways to get around it. China will probably continue buying Iranian oil, maybe at an even higher level than before. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman has already indicated that China will “maintain normal economic ties and trade” with Tehran, rejecting “the imposition of unilateral sanctions.” Meantime, US businesses and consumers will pay for this dramatic shift on Iran.

Beijing’s incentive goes beyond trade; it’s an opportunity to demonstrate defiance of the US, which wants to force foreign companies with branches in the US to comply with its sanctions or face penalties. China now will be in sync with America’s traditional European partners in lining up against US policy. Should the Trump administration follow through on what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called “historic” sanctions on Iran, with the goal of regime change, the US will be further isolated to China’s benefit.

Much the same opportunity awaits China now that Trump has scratched the summit with Kim Jong-un.

Xi’s revitalization of diplomacy with North Korea prior to the planned Kim Jong-un-Trump summit in Singapore conveyed China’s large stake in the outcome. At his first meeting with Kim in late March, Xi probably reminded Kim of China’s longstanding support, insisted that Kim be mindful of China’s interests when dealing with Trump, and perhaps told Kim he has his back in the event the summit with Trump goes badly and US threats resume. By their second meeting in Dalian this month, Trump’s threats to China on trade may have led Xi to strengthen his backing of Kim, as Trump evidently believes when he said on May 22 that “there was a different attitude by the North Korean folks after that meeting. I can’t say that I’m happy [with China] about it.”

Trump has discovered that his hoped-for quick timetable on North Korean denuclearization will not happen. If he had bothered to read his own defense department’s 2017 report to Congress on North Korea, he would have realized that Kim Jong-un was extremely unlikely to give up a deterrent to US attack. Trump would have had to settle for much less than “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” such as a nuclear-and-missile test freeze or a halt to nuclear weapons production. Some observers saw flexibility in Trump’s May 22 statement that “I don’t think I want to totally commit myself” to North Korea’s immediate dismantlement of its nuclear weapons. But John Bolton evidently was determined that Trump not meet Kim with concessions in mind.
Instead, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence resorted to threats. Both raised the “Libya model” as the US alternative if North Korea rejected a nuclear deal. Predictably, North Korean officials pounced on that Bolton-esque language to warn that the summit was in jeopardy. And so it was. Trump’s goodbye letter to Kim had some nice words, but it also confirmed to the North Koreans that the US nuclear option remains alive: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”

Beijing would certainly seem to have Kim’s back: It supports Kim’s position that North Korean denuclearization depends on US security assurances and an end to “hostile” US actions. Kim apparently also expects that sanctions will be eased as the nuclear issue is resolved—a view the Chinese not only support but are already putting into practice by reviving border trade with North Korean businesses. South Korean president Moon Jae-in likewise understands that if dismantlement of North Korean nukes under international inspection is ever to happen, incentives to the North will be necessary. Moreover, denuclearization must take place in stages, in line with the principle of “action for action” that was initially agreed upon in the 2005 joint statement of the Six Parties. The South Koreans were reportedly stunned by Trump’s volte-face on the summit, though they should have known that Trump’s expectations were unrealistic and would never be met by the North Koreans. Yet Moon had been counting heavily on the summit, and Trump’s decision severely undercut him. “I am very perplexed and it is very regrettable that the North Korea-U.S. summit will not be held on June 12 when it was scheduled to be held,” Moon said at a meeting of his top national security officials.

With US-DPRK relations back to square one, which could mean renewed trading of threats and insults, the China factor looms larger than before. China’s improved relations with North Korea put it in position to help or undermine another US diplomatic initiative with North Korea. But right now, China is not in a helping mood with Washington. US-China relations are deteriorating, due not only to trade and investment issues with China but also closer US ties with Taiwan and the US withdrawal of its usual invitation to China to take part in this year’s RIMPAC naval exercises. Trump would do well to recalibrate the importance of good relations with China and adjust his Iran and North Korea policies accordingly. Those policies are bad for peace, bad for business, and bad for US relations with longtime allies—and they make China look like a champion of them all.

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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