What Trump Should Understand about China and North Korea

There’s something almost charming about Trump’s ability to undermine sensible policy in just 140 characters.
January 4, 2017 • Commentary
This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on January 4, 2017.

In barely two weeks Americans will learn whether Donald Trump is as smart as he claims. He triumphed over the odds to win the presidency and most of his staff picks so far look serious. But his tweets continue to raise some interesting questions.

The president-elect’s recent Twitter strike was on China and North Korea. He seems to view the former about as negatively as neoconservatives view Russia, which Trump apparently admires. At least one can blame Vladimir Putin for interfering in other nations, most notably Georgia and Ukraine. Since the dramatic transformation of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing has attacked no one. Maybe it plans to—but then again, it would take a lot to catch up with the United States.

Anyway, Trump’s tweet exclaimed: “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one‐​sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!”

It’s possible the president‐​elect believes packing the maximum misinformation into the shortest exclamation is an effective way to make foreign policy. Maybe, but the other explanation is that he’s wholly missing the mark.

A businessman should understand international commerce better. Chinese president Xi Jinping is no friend of liberty, but he also is no bank robber, stealthily looting vaults and safety deposit boxes up and down the West Coast. Instead, Chinese individuals and firms have been selling products for which they were paid. In return, Americans got a lot of stuff that they valued—just look at the insane rush to acquire every iteration of the iPhone. Some of the cash was sent back to the United States in the form of investment in American companies as well as federal government debt.

Think about it. Americans send the Chinese a flood of little pieces of green paper with numbers on them. The only obvious intrinsic value of this paper is as toilet paper. Yet in return the Chinese send a flood of goods, most far more useful than the U.S. paper. And the Chinese purchase debt issued by the U.S. government, which is ringing the PRC with allies, bases, ships, planes and troops. Which country is the foolish one?

Trump should hope that Beijing doesn’t wise up.

As for North Korea, China has helped the West. The PRC agreed to a series of United Nations sanctions against the so‐​called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Beijing progressively stiffened enforcement. Some Sino‐​North Korean deals have been squelched.

The PRC also has shown its displeasure in other ways. China has consistently pushed the North to eschew nuclear weapons, forgo testing and participate in international negotiations. President Xi has met several times with South Korea’s president, but not once with the North’s Kim Jong‐​un. The latter hasn’t even been invited to visit the PRC. The diplomatic “cold shoulder” is a common technique that President Trump is likely to be practicing soon.

It’s certainly true that China has been unable to rein in the DPRK. And Beijing obviously has not done all that it could to pressure the Kim regime. But misstating China’s current policy isn’t likely to make Beijing be more helpful. Why single out the PRC when U.S. ally South Korea not that long ago was shipping money and other forms of aid to the North?

Most important, hopefully one of Trump’s aides will explain to the president‐​elect the shocking truth that foreign governments typically act in their own nations’, rather than America’s, interest. It’s an extraordinary revelation, but sadly true. President Xi and his fellow residents of Zhongnanhai will not “help” the United States unless they believe it is in their interest to do so. And so far, at least, they do not believe destroying the North Korean regime to be so.

There is no mystery about Beijing’s stance. China is ringed by nations with which it has gone to war, in some cases not that long ago. North Korea isn’t much, but it is the PRC’s only military ally. In 1950 China battled the United States to preserve another Kim regime, that of Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il‐​sung, North Korea’s founding dictator. While Beijing does not want a nuclear DPRK, it wants collapse and chaos, followed by a unified Korea allied with America, even less.

Thus, when Washington asks for “help” regarding the North, Chinese officials hear: “Please impose regime change on your ally and deliver the Korean Peninsula to America, so the latter can station troops along the Yalu River and better construct a regional containment system to stifle Chinese influence and threaten Chinese prosperity.”

What rational Chinese government would “help” America in that way?

It might be possible to get Beijing to do more, but only as part of a deal. That is, by convincing the PRC that it would benefit too. Promising to help manage mass starvation and mass refugee flows if the North implodes. Pledging to withdraw U.S. troops from a unified Korea, which would be militarily neutral. Offering to respect Chinese economic interests if the South absorbs the North. That sort of thing.

Washington also can’t expect to “win” on every issue involving China. A Taiwan gambit could be advantageous if the Trump administration skillfully sets priorities and trades away some of its desires. But China will not simultaneously destroy its relationship with North Korea, accept a two‐​China policy, give investment and trade preferences to the United States, abandon aggressive territorial claims in East Asian waters, and otherwise make the new president’s life easy. The PRC is a rising, nationalistic, prosperous and historic power. Think back to young America in the 1800s. Great Britain was stronger, for a time, but ultimately kept the peace by accommodating the aggressive new nation that sprang forth from thirteen British colonies.

There’s something almost charming about Trump’s ability to undermine sensible policy in just 140 characters. But since he soon will be taking over in Washington we all have to take his tweets seriously.

So should he. If he wants to forge a constructive relationship with China, advance Americans’ economic interests and reduce the threat of a rogue North Korea, he’s going to have to put more thought into his policy than he obviously did into his latest Twitter foray. Any political deal has to be based on reality and promote mutual gain. Just like in the many business transactions he extols.

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