BEIJING, CHINA - It’s been less than a week since President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping held their first high-level talks. Chinese state media have been playing up the positives following the get-together, highlighting how the meeting put ties back on track and how it is giving the relationship new dynamism.
Just days later, though, the two countries appear to be heading full steam toward the biggest test yet of Sino-U.S. ties under the Trump administration: North Korea.
A U.S. Navy strike force is heading for waters in North Korea’s neighborhood, what President Trump said is a very powerful armada, including an aircraft carrier and submarines.
At the same time, anticipation is growing that Pyongyang could carry out another nuclear test — again in violation of United Nations sanctions — to mark the birthday of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding father and the grandfather of Kim Jong Un.
“It’s a big test of diplomacy, shuttle diplomacy. It’s a test of Trump and Xi Jinping's rapport that they have built together,” said Alex Neill, a senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
On the eve of talks last Thursday and Friday between Trump and Xi in Mar-a-Largo, North Korea launched missile tests, thrusting the issue to the forefront of their discussions.
The two spoke again on the phone Wednesday, discussing North Korea and Syria. It was a phone call that China’s foreign ministry says Trump initiated.
In a Wednesday morning tweet, Trump said he had a "good call with the president of China concerning the menace of North Korea."
Had a very good call last night with the President of China concerning the menace of North Korea.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2017
During the call, Xi stressed that while China is willing to work together with the U.S. on North Korea, it wants the situation to be handled peacefully.
Neill said that going forward, however, it is China that may be facing the biggest challenge.
“It’s probably more of a test for China than it is for the United States. To put substance to what may have been discussed at Mar-a-Largo,” he said.
North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2017
President Trump has warned that if China does not help, Washington may have no choice but to act on its own. The Trump administration says that all options are on the table, and has noted the missile strikes that were carried out last week in Syria should serve as a warning to Pyongyang.
Analysts say tougher sanctions are still the most likely weapon that the U.S. and others could use to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.
“Trump has resolve to deal with escalation and atrocities in a decisive way, but I think in all likelihood this aircraft carrier is going to do maneuvers and mount exercises in the vicinity of the Korean peninsula,” said Neill.
Neill disagreed with the assumption that actual operations could be launched from the aircraft carrier against North Korea. He said such a move would be disastrous.
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnum School of International Studies in Singapore, said that while the U.S. is likely to adopt a strong military posture, he does not believe it will take military action.
“There are simply too many targets to worry about,” he said. “Assuming you want to take out some of these nuclear sites and so on, if you miss one, that will wreak havoc on the rest of the region.”
Oh said that in the short run, China “will intensify the enforcement of the relevant UN sanctions resolutions.”
Just as Trump has been calling on China to do more, Beijing has been pressing Washington to talk with North Korea.
During a visit to South Korea this week, China’s top nuclear negotiator, Wu Dawei, was quoted as saying that Beijing is actively working to arrange the talks.
According the Yonhap news agency, during a meeting with Justice Party presidential candidate Sim Sang-jung, Wu said, "[China] has always endeavored to resolve [the North's issue] through talks on the basis of the denuclearization principle. ... But there are states that have denied dialogue. One is North Korea, and the other is the United States."
Some analysts believe that dialogue without any pre-conditions is the solution, but Neill says that is highly unlikely. There is room for tighter sanctions, he argues.
“It’s been plain to see, with the Kim Jong-nam assassination in Kuala Lumpur, that North Korea has enjoyed far more freedoms of maneuver across significant swathes of Asia, as well as elsewhere in world than we would like to imagine,” Neill said.
Until recently, North Koreans could travel visa-free to Singapore and Malaysia. And while United Nations sanctions target very specific individuals in the North Korean regime, the rest of the party is free to do business with whomever they want in China or elsewhere, Neill said.
“A new set of strictures [restrictions] needs to be discussed with China, which will put genuine pressure on the regime to desist from its proliferation activities both conventional and nuclear,” he observed. “I suspect that China would be open to doing that.”