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China slams US policy on North Korea; calls it “an abysmal failure”

During tense call between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping China rejects US demands for oil embargo on North Korea

US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to each other over the telephone on Wednesday 29th November 2017 following North Korea’s ICBM test.

China’s official news agency Xinhua has provided an account of the call, which reads as follows:

Chinese President Xi Jinping told his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, in a telephone conversation late Wednesday that denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, maintaining international nuclear-nonproliferation regime, and preserving peace and stability in Northeast Asia are China’s unswerving goal.

He said China would like to keep up communications with the United States and all other related parties, and jointly push the nuclear issue towards the direction of peaceful settlement via dialogues and negotiations.

In response, Trump said the United States has serious concerns over the launch of a ballistic missile by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The DPRK’s Korean Central Television reported that the country successfully test-fired a newly developed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile early Wednesday morning, a move that has drawn condemnation from the international community.

Pyongyang said “The development and advancement of the strategic weapon of DPRK are to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country from the U.S. imperialists’ nuclear blackmail policy and nuclear threat, and to ensure the peaceful life of the people.”

It is the first launch since Sept. 15, when the DPRK fired a ballistic missile over northern Japan into the Pacific Ocean.

Trump said Washington highly values China’s important role in solving the nuclear issue, and is willing to enhance communications and coordinations with China in search for solutions to the issue.

Also in their phone talks, the Chinese leader said that during Trump’s visit to China earlier this month the two heads of state have exchanged in-depth views on key issues of common concerns and reached important consensuses on multiple fronts, which bears important significance for maintaining sound and stable bilateral ties.

Xi called on the two sides to carry out these consensuses, make good plans for high-level bilateral exchanges, as well as at other levels, ensure the second round talks under all four high-level China-U.S. dialogue mechanisms a success, and implement cooperation agreements and projects between the two countries.

He also urged the two sides to maintain close communications and coordination on important international and regional affairs.

To help soothe the Korean Peninsula situation, China has proposed a dual-track approach, seeking to advance denuclearization and establish a peace mechanism in parallel. Beijing, in its “suspension for suspension” initiative, calls on Pyongyang to pause its missile and nuclear activities, and calls on Washington to put its joint military drills with South Korea on hold.

In response to the DPRK’s missile launch, the United Nations Security Council will hold an urgent meeting on Wednesday afternoon.

Since November last year, the Security Council has imposed export bans on coal, iron, lead, textiles and seafood, restricted joint ventures and blacklisted a number of DPRK’s entities in response to the country’s missile and nuclear tests.

It has also banned the hiring of DPRK’s guest workers and capped oil exports.

Under UN resolutions, DPRK is barred from developing missiles and a nuclear weapons capability, but Pyongyang argues that the arsenal is needed for self-defense against the “hostile” United States.

This official summary of the telephone conversation is a classic example of how China officially reports conversations by its President.  As such it requires careful reading to get a proper sense of what actually happened.

Firstly, the Xinhua report makes no reference to the longstanding US demand – repeated by Nikki Haley to the UN Security Council on Wednesday – that China impose an oil embargo on North Korea.

As it is inconceivable that President Trump did not bring up the subject of the oil embargo during the call, that can only mean that President Xi Jinping rejected it.

The Xinhua report suggests that in response to Trump’s demand for an oil embargo Xi Jinping reminded Trump of the extensive sanctions the UN Security Council has already imposed with China’s agreement on North Korea.  Note the careful way Xinhua lists them

Since November last year, the Security Council has imposed export bans on coal, iron, lead, textiles and seafood, restricted joint ventures and blacklisted a number of DPRK’s entities in response to the country’s missile and nuclear tests.

It has also banned the hiring of DPRK’s guest workers and capped oil exports.

The Xinhua report also suggests that Xi Jinping reminded Donald Trump of North Korea’s security concerns – concerns which China recognises as fully legitimate (see below) – whilst reiterating to Trump that the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme is clearly – as North Korea says – defensive.  Note how carefully Xinhua reports North Korea’s statement following the ICBM test that North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons test is intended purely for self-defence

Pyongyang said “The development and advancement of the strategic weapon of DPRK are to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country from the U.S. imperialists’ nuclear blackmail policy and nuclear threat, and to ensure the peaceful life of the people.”….

The key point however about the Xinhua report is that it strongly implies that Trump threatened Xi Jinping with unilateral sanctions against Chinese companies if China did not comply with US demands for an oil embargo on North Korea.

The Xinhua report also says that Xi Jinping reminded Trump of the agreements for cooperation between the US and China which were reached during Trump’s visit to Beijing just a few weeks ago.  It seems that Xi Jinping pointedly reminded Trump that his threats of unilateral sanctions against Chinese companies were in total contradiction to these agreements

Also in their phone talks, the Chinese leader said that during Trump’s visit to China earlier this month the two heads of state have exchanged in-depth views on key issues of common concerns and reached important consensuses on multiple fronts, which bears important significance for maintaining sound and stable bilateral ties.

Xi called on the two sides to carry out these consensuses, make good plans for high-level bilateral exchanges, as well as at other levels, ensure the second round talks under all four high-level China-U.S. dialogue mechanisms a success, and implement cooperation agreements and projects between the two countries.

Lastly, it is clear from the Xinhua report that Xi Jinping warned Trump against unilateral US actions – whether against Chinese companies or against North Korea – reminded Trump of China’s proposal for a double-freeze (a halt to North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear tests in return for a halt to US military exercises and military deployments in and around the Korean Peninsula) and warned Trump that any and all steps taken by the US to resolve the North Korean issue should be agreed in advance with China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping told his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, in a telephone conversation late Wednesday that denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, maintaining international nuclear-nonproliferation regime, and preserving peace and stability in Northeast Asia are China’s unswerving goal.

He said China would like to keep up communications with the United States and all other related parties, and jointly push the nuclear issue towards the direction of peaceful settlement via dialogues and negotiations……

He also urged the two sides to maintain close communications and coordination on important international and regional affairs.

To help soothe the Korean Peninsula situation, China has proposed a dual-track approach, seeking to advance denuclearization and establish a peace mechanism in parallel. Beijing, in its “suspension for suspension” initiative, calls on Pyongyang to pause its missile and nuclear activities, and calls on Washington to put its joint military drills with South Korea on hold.

That this was a tense and difficult conversation, with Xi Jinping rejecting Donald Trump’s demand for an oil embargo on North Korea and Donald Trump in response threatening Xi Jinping with US sanctions against Chinese companies, is all but confirmed by an uncharacteristically furious editorial which was published shortly after by China’s semi-official English language newspaper Global Times.

This editorial lays the entire blame for the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme and for the whole crisis in the Korean Peninsula squarely on US intransigence and short-sightedness

Over the years Washington has repeatedly issued statements on how they will not hesitate to deploy measures necessary to end North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Pyongyang’s contrarian responses have only accelerated their progress as achievements have been made along the way. Overall, North Korea’s progress has superseded Washington expectations.

It must be acknowledged that US foreign policy on North Korea has been nothing but an abysmal failure. When Washington first took the initiative to negotiate, they ignored Pyongyang security demands, essentially blowing an opportunity urging them to discontinue their nuclear weapons program. And right now, the Trump administration actually believes it can influence Pyongyang’s weapons program by applying greater pressure on the country. And as if that wasn’t enough, Washington is counting on China to support a new round of Trump administration pressure tactics.

(bold italics added)

These words essentially confirm that Donald Trump demanded from Xi Jinping that China impose an oil embargo on North Korea and threatened Xi Jinping with unilateral US sanctions against Chinese companies unless it did so.

As to that demand – and the threat which came with it – Global Times confirms that Xi Jinping rejected it

Washington has placed China in a precarious situation by asking for more than what was originally expected by the UN Security Council regarding the previous round of North Korea sanctions. China has always carried out UN Security measures, however, it will refuse extra responsibilities stemming from both sides.

It is time the US realized that increasing and tightening sanctions already in place will not have the desired effect. Since yesterday, Pyongyang has never been this confident. Condemnations from the UN Security Council and the new sanctions that may follow will solve nothing.

(bold italics added)

Interestingly, and in a sign of the close coordination between Beijing and Moscow on the North Korean issue, Global Times also repeats a recent Russian claim that the US threw away an opportunity to negotiate with North Korea during the two months prior to the ICBM launch when there were no North Korean ballistic missile or nuclear tests

During the previous two months, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions were practically dormant. The reason for such quiet might have been related to the necessary preparation for their recent launch. Or it could have been a message intended for the US designed to ease tension between the two countries.

Unfortunately, Washington chose not to adjust its course. On November 20, Trump redesignated North Korea as a state-sponsor of terror and imposed new sanctions on the country. If the only thing the US achieved was to ignite the wrath of Kim Jong-un.

Both sides need to see each other clearly. Washington should have learned by now that relying solely on pressure will not subdue North Korea.  Also, the US might want to take North Korea’s national security requests seriously from here on out.

(bold italics added)

These identical comments from Beijing and Moscow suggest that the Chinese and the Russians know a great deal more than they are saying.

I suspect that over the course of the recent talks in Moscow the North Koreans told the Russians that preparations for the next North Korean ICBM test were two months away, and that if the US was genuinely interested in compromise it should use this period to signal clearly that it was looking for a compromise.

If the North Koreans did say this to the Russians then the Russians would have passed it on to the Chinese and to the US.  However Washington ignored it, instead increasing the pressure on North Korea by declaring it a ‘terrorist state’ and imposing more sanctions on it, with the results that we now see.

As to what those results are, Global Times spells them out

Foreign experts analyzed data from the Hwasong-15 and found that a standard launch could see the missile travel 13,000 km (8,000 miles). This means North Korea now has a missile that can clear the entire US (Pyongyang to New York City is 6,672 miles).

The impression made by the Hwasong-15 test has been a confidence booster for Pyongyang. They have finally proven to themselves and to the world they now have the weapons capability to strike anywhere in the US.  Initial reports from the ICBM launch sent shockwaves through DC and US society….

Advances in nuclear weapons will never subside. Initially, the most important component of an intercontinental ballistic missile was how far it could travel. Now, the next stage will require advanced development in areas pertaining to mobility and protection.

In other words, by throwing away the opportunity to negotiate a compromise during the two months when the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons testing programme was dormant, the US has put itself in a weaker position and North Korea in a stronger position than they were in before.

That the conversation between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping was tense and fraught, and is the cause of great anger in Beijing, is further indicated by certain comments coming out of Moscow, which is clearly in constant touch with Beijing on this issue.  Here is how the official Russian news agency TASS reports these comments by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov

…..”Washington’s recent steps seem to be deliberately aimed at provoking Pyongyang to take some tough actions,” [Lavrov] noted. The US should openly say if its provocative actions are aimed at destroying North Korea, he said.

He pointed out that Washington “announced that large-scale unscheduled drills would held in December.” “It seems, they have done everything on purpose, to make [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un lose control and make another desperate move,” he said. “The Americans need to explain to us all what they are actually up to. If they seek a pretext to destroy North Korea, they should openly say so and the US leadership should confirm it. Then we would decide how to respond,” the Russian top diplomat added.

Russia is against US proposals for an economic blockade of North Korea and believes the sanctions pressure has exhausted itself, he said.

“Our attitude (to the US proposals – TASS) is negative. We have said more than once that the sanctions pressure has in fact exhausted itself,” he said.

At the same time, Lavrov confirmed that Moscow did not support Washington’s initiatives concerning the economic blockade of North Korea and believed that the potential of sanctions had been exhausted. “Our attitude [towards the US initiatives – TASS] is negative. We have stressed many times that the potential of sanctions has actually been exhausted,” Lavrov said.

He pointed out that “all the resolutions imposing sanctions also demand that the political process and talks be resumed.” “But the US has been ignoring this demand. I think it is a huge mistake,” the Russian top diplomat noted.

(bold italics added)

These comments of Lavrov’s – especially the highlighted words – are very interesting, not just because they place the blame on the US for the whole crisis and because they clearly rule out an oil embargo, but because they hint that the US’s real intention towards North Korea is not to bring its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme to an end but rather to achieve regime change in Pyongyang.

Back in August an editorial in Global Times warned that if the US attacked North Korea China would act by military means if necessary to defend North Korea.  Lavrov’s words about Russia effectively associate Russia with this Chinese warning.

The route to compromise over the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme is not closed.

Negotiations continue.  There was a big Russian delegation in Pyongyang at the time of the ICBM launch, undoubtedly as a follow up to the earlier meetings between Russian and North Korean diplomats in Moscow.

China also continues to pursue diplomacy with South Korea, and there is now no doubt that the Chinese and the Russians are working together.

However the latest words from Beijing and Moscow show that the Chinese and the Russians no longer see the primary obstacle to a compromise in Pyongyang.  Rather they see it in Washington, and they are adjusting their diplomacy accordingly.

What that means is that the US is becoming even more sidelined as the Chinese and the Russians search for a diplomatic solution by direct diplomacy with the two Koreas, which no longer involves the US.

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