President Trump’s tweet that he is not declaring China a currency manipulator because of China’s help in stopping the North Korean programme has a distinct smell of blackmail about it. It implies that if Trump judges that China is not being ‘helpful’ with North Korea, he will retaliate by declaring China a currency manipulator.
That this is a wholly misconceived threat should be obvious. Either China manipulates its currency or it does not. There is no logic to connecting this question to the wholly separate question of China’s relationship with North Korea, and it discredits the stance of the US on the important currency question by saying there is.
Making this sort of threat merely shows up once again this President’s inexperience and lack of understanding of international diplomacy, and his mistake in applying the entirely different lessons he learnt in running his business to the very different world of international diplomacy.
Beyond this the tweet shows a fundamental failure to understand the exact nature of China’s relationship with North Korea. In this it should be said that this President is not alone. The same failure has dogged all US attempts to block the North Korean nuclear programme ever since it started in earnest in the 1980s.
The US’s consistent strategy has been to get China to use its supposedly ‘massive leverage’ to curtail the North Korean nuclear programme.
Sometimes the US hopes go further still, with talk of the entire North Korean regime being supposedly a ‘liability’ to China, and of China supposedly in its own interests working with the US to destabilise and overthrow a ‘dangerous and unpredictable’ regime which is supposedly a liability for China.
President Trump has spoken in this way himself, but the clearest expression of this view has recently appeared in an editorial in The London Times, whose owner Rupert Murdoch is known to be personally close to Trump
Now China must demonstrate that it is starting to grow into a more mature and constructive world role, in line with its economic power. Bleating about the need for all sides to show restraint without using its leverage over Pyongyang to good effect is feeble in the extreme. It may not want a united, western-facing Korea on its doorstep, but the alternative, an increasingly unpredictable and dangerous North Korea, is surely far less palatable.
This will never happen, and it is not difficult to see why.
The Chinese have never made any secret of their strong disapproval of the North Korean nuclear programme, which they recognise – even if the West does not – as partly intended to reduce North Korea’s strategic dependence on them. They have also never hidden their contempt for the dynastic nature of North Korea’s political system, and for their strong preference for the establishment in North Korea of a system of government more like their own.
That there are tensions and even a measure of mutual dislike between the North Korean leadership and China is shown by the fact that Kim Jong-un has not visited China or met publicly with any senior Chinese official since he became North Korea’s leader in December 2011. Moreover since becoming leader Kim Jong-un seems to have acted to curtail Chinese influence in North Korea, firstly by executing in December 2013 his uncle Jang Song-thaek, who is believed to have been close to China, and who some think was China’s choice to succeed Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il, and secondly by possibly ordering the murder of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam, who appears to have enjoyed a measure of protection from China.
However these tensions and this dislike cannot change the fact that China’s prestige and the internal stability of China’s own government are bound up with the survival of the existing regime in Pyongyang.
Not only did China fight a war against the US in the 1950s to secure the survival of the North Korean regime, but China simply cannot afford the humiliation of having a regime with which it has such longstanding ties being overthrown and replaced by a US backed regime on its own border. Such an event would undoubtedly provoke a massive political crisis within China, and any Chinese leaders who allowed it to happen would not survive it.
The relationship is exactly analogous to that between China and North Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Part of the rationale for the US opening to China in the early 1970s was to secure Chinese help to pressure China’s ally North Vietnam into making concessions to the US at the peace talks between the US and North Vietnam in Paris.
This was based on US knowledge of tensions between the North Vietnamese leadership and China.
In the event China failed to apply the sort of pressure on North Vietnam that the US wanted it to, because China’s prestige and that of China’s leaders were too tied to North Vietnam for that to happen. Only after the US pulled out of Vietnam, and North Vietnam achieved victory over South Vietnam, was it possible for the tensions between China and the North Vietnamese leadership to flare up into the open.
The result is that though the Chinese regularly voice their disapproval of North Korea’s actions, and from time to time go through the motions of imposing sanctions on North Korea, in practise they always stop well short of doing anything that would seriously injure or undermine the North Korean regime.
The recent talk about China’s suspension of coal imports from North Korea is a case in point. This was first reported in February. However just 6 days ago Reuters was reporting it all over again as if it had only just happened, suggesting that the February report was a sham.
The game China plays of pretending to support US moves against North Korea whilst actually doing nothing of the sort, was recently discussed in an article in The Daily Telegraph
Beijing has subtly undermined every Western attempt at diplomacy or sanctions so far, either watering down sanctions at the UN or watering them down at the border where trucks and ships regularly cross as part of a black market which helps sustain the North Korean economy.
China has intervened to prevent sanctioning of the companies involved, and recent demonstrations of stopping coal shipments were merely cosmetic. The most egregious example was in 2012, when Chinese-built mobile missile launchers took part in a military parade in downtown Pyongyang in full view of international journalists.
The trade between China and North Korea is only “black market” because it suits China to pretend it is. In reality it is carried out on a massive scale and in the open, with recent reports from China suggesting it has increased. The New York Times article reporting this increase also reports this warning from China that it will not tighten trade restrictions on North Korea to the point of putting the survival of the North Korean regime at risk
The Chinese Foreign Ministry cautioned on Thursday that Washington should not expect China to squeeze its neighbor, and ally, to the point that sanctions would provoke instability, and possibly the collapse of the North’s government. Nor would China be enthusiastic about more sanctions being placed by others on North Korea, the ministry said.
Asked about the impact of secondary sanctions that could be applied by the United States on Chinese firms that do business with North Korea, the ministry’s spokesman said Beijing was opposed to such actions.
“China has always opposed the frequent use of unilateral sanctions in international affairs, and we especially oppose those sanctions that undermine China’s interests,” the spokesman, Lu Kang, said at a briefing. “China always decides its own stance and policy based on the merit of the matter itself.”
The London Times editorial which I discussed previously expresses clearly the growing exasperation of the Trump administration and of others at China’s refusal to act in the way the US wants it to against North Korea
[President Trump’s] confidence in China is not, so far, borne out by Beijing’s actions. To listen to Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, it would be easy to think he was commenting on a distant stand-off over which his country had little or no influence….
For too long China has abdicated its responsibility for North Korea and sought to blame the West for stoking up tensions with Pyongyang. That will not wash any more. China needs to show some genuine leadership. The ball is firmly in its court.
Rather than make demands on China to which China will never submit, or make threats against China which can only backfire, the US would be far better advised to do what it has consistently refused to do, which is talk to North Korea’s leadership about agreeing limits to that country’s nuclear weapons programme.
That would undoubtedly require the US to make reciprocal concessions to Pyongyang, which would probably include a reduction in the US military posture in South Korea. However it is the only realistic choice if the US is to prevent this situation escalating out of control, whether now or in the future.
When the US did briefly talk to North Korea in the 1990s the agreements it made then appeared for a time to work, until the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations foolishly went back on them. That set the scene for the crisis we are in now. It is time the US went back to that approach.