At Mar-a-Lago, Focus on North Korea

Donald Trump, Xi Jinping
Donald Trump, Xi Jinping / Getty Images
April 4, 2017

The Trump administration is dealing with a lot. Just consider the agenda this week: a nuclear war for its Supreme Court nominee on Capitol Hill, dueling investigations and political fights over contacts with Russia and the previous administration's handling of intelligence, a renewed push on health care, a visit of the President of Egypt and the King of Jordan to discuss peace in the Middle East, and of course the two-day visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Mar-a-Lago.

Each of these matters is, to state the obvious, complex.

Any full survey of the China relationship, to take an issue in isolation, ought to include discussions of militarization and freedom of navigation in the East and South China Seas, currency manipulation, trade imbalances, economic bullying of American allies in the Pacific, and a number of other things besides.

A team can only be expected to do so much well. For that reason alone, the agenda with the Chinese delegation on Thursday and Friday, over some socializing and the all-you-can-eat roast beef buffet, should be North Korea, North Korea, and North Korea.

Kim Jong Un's reckless effort to pair nuclear warheads with missiles that can range the United States will, if successful, fundamentally upset the strategic balance in the region. It must be stopped. Short of pre-emptive action taken by the United States and its ally South Korea—an option about which no one is excited, but which must be considered—the only player with the leverage to make Pyongyang change its behavior is China. But China's limited efforts to employ this leverage have tended towards show over substance, as with the recent announcement that Beijing was curtailing coal imports from North Korea—even though it may have already come so close to the legal limit of such imports under existing U.N. sanctions that it was going to have to cut off such imports anyway.

This is an issue that must be confronted—and all the better if such a discussion happens in person between Xi and Trump in the pleasing atmosphere of Palm Beach. It should not be tied to other issues, or to any bargains, "grand" or otherwise, about the U.S. presence in Japan and South Korea. American forces are in the region to aid in the defense of allies against the clear-and-present danger of the Kim regime, and to guarantee the peace and security of the region. It is in China's interest to prevent a conflict on its border sparked by the irresponsibility of the Kim family. No U.S. "concessions" need even be discussed.

Xi's negotiators will come armed with a long list of requests, and likely a handful of concessions of their own. They will surely recognize the unusual character of the current strategic moment for the United States and China: on trade, America wants to change the status quo, but on security, it is in the U.S. interest to hold firm. Looking to establish hegemony in the western Pacific, the Chinese negotiators may well seek meaningful and difficult-to-reverse security concessions (the removal of the THAAD missile defense system from the Korean peninsula, or a reduction in U.S. support for Taiwan) in return for squishy and reversible economic incentives (alterations in Chinese trade policy or direct Chinese investment that could generate jobs in the United States—for as long as the policy continues, anyway). They may throw in some limited economic pressure on North Korea to sweeten the deal—something else that is easily reversed.

This would be an extremely perilous road for the United States to wander down, and if trade is going to be discussed, as seems certain, that conversation would be better off occurring in isolation from security talks. There are plenty of possible missteps and policy dangers packed into each issue on its own. Even Chinese requests that may seem modest and benign—like, say, a request for a joint statement that endorses Beijing's One Belt, One Road trade and infrastructure push—may be anything but. One Belt, One Road is widely perceived in the region as an effort for Beijing to acquire even more decisive economic leverage over its neighbors, so much so that Australia has recently been distancing itself from the initiative. A presidential endorsement would be taken as a sign of American withdrawal from the region.

Why are China's neighbors worried about its economic leverage? Because when it has such leverage, it weaponizes it—except, perversely, in the case of North Korea. Upset with South Korea's acceptance of THAAD—a wholly legitimate act of a sovereign state to defend itself from an existential threat—Beijing has relentlessly punished the South Korean economy. Permits for tourism to South Korea have been radically restricted. The Chinese ventures of a major South Korean conglomerate that is providing land for the THAAD deployment have been targeted for retaliation. Planned new routes for charter flights have been rejected by Beijing. Korean cultural exports like movies and music—big business for South Korea—have been curtailed in a variety of ways.

The situation is so bad that Seoul is not ruling out leveling a complaint against China at the World Trade Organization. Alas, such behavior is normal for Xi's regime. Upset with the election of an independence-friendly party in Taiwan last year, Beijing has executed a very similar campaign of economic retaliation.

Mind you, these issues are only a small sliver of what is going on, and only in Northeast Asia. All around the rim of the Asia Pacific and into the Indian Ocean, China is engaged in aggressive and unacceptable behavior. Each issue will have to be managed and confronted in turn, and over time. The Chinese would like nothing better that to disadvantage the United States by securing some sort of deal at Mar-a-Lago that links economic and security issues and makes the current administration politically invested in Chinese trade concessions that could easily be reversed—and that would likely be more glitter than gold.