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Xi Jinping in phone call to Trump: calm down on North Korea; follow China’s lead

In typical Chinese fashion, after the mailed fist comes the velvet glove.

Having warned the US via an editorial in Global Times yesterday that it will defend North Korea if the US invades North Korea and seeks to overthrow Kim Jong-un’s government, the Chinese government followed this up today with a telephone call to US President Trump by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Both of the main official media outlets of the Chinese government – the People’s Daily and the Xinhua news agency – give accounts of the call and of what Xi Jinping said.  The more detailed account of the call is however the one provided by Xinhua.  It reads as follows

 Chinese President Xi Jinping urged restraint regarding the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula in a phone conversation with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump on Saturday.

The concerned parties should avoid remarks and actions that could escalate tensions on the peninsula, Xi said, adding China is ready to work with the United States to appropriately resolve the issue.

Xi stressed that China and the United States have common interests in achieving denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and maintaining peace and stability there.

The concerned parities should strive to resolve the issue through dialogue and negotiation to reach a political solution, Xi said.

China is willing to keep close contacts with the United States, on the basis of mutual respect, to seek a sound settlement on the issue, he added.

Xi said he had a productive meeting with President Trump on the sidelines of the Group of 20 Summit last month in Hamburg, Germany.

Maintaining close contacts between the two leaders on issues of common concern is “very important for the development of the China-U.S. relations,” Xi added.

He urged the two sides to enhance dialogue and communication in accordance with the consensus previously reached, promote exchanges and cooperation in various fields, and appropriately deal with each other’s concerns, so as to ensure healthy and stable advancement of bilateral ties.

Furthermore, the Chinese president said that Beijing places high value on Trump’s state visit to China later this year, urging both sides to make good preparations for the visit.

Trump, for his part, also stressed the importance of maintaining close contacts between the two leaders on major issues and strengthening exchanges between their countries at all levels as well as in various areas.

The development of U.S.-China relations enjoys good momentum, he noted, voicing his belief that bilateral ties could be better.

The U.S. president also said that he is looking forward to his state visit to China.

On the Korean nuclear issue, Trump said the United States fully understands China’s efforts in resolving it, and is willing to continue to keep close contacts with Beijing on major international and regional issues of common concern.

(bold italics added)

The key words are the ones I have highlighted.

Xi Jinping told Donald Trump to moderate his language on the North Korean issue and to work in lockstep with China.  He pointed out to Trump that it is in the US interest to do so because China shares with the US the ultimate objective of the total denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.  However he also warned Trump that a failure by the US to work with China by taking unilateral steps unacceptable to China – such as a military strike against North Korea – will put the entire US-Chinese relationship in jeopardy.

That Xi Jinping particularly emphasised to Trump the last point is shown by the fact that the only actual words of his that Xinhua quotes touch on precisely this issue – “Maintaining close contacts between the two leaders on issues of common concern is “very important for the development of the China-U.S. relations.””

It is unlikely that in a diplomatic call Xi Jinping would have repeated the Chinese warning – with its implied threat of Chinese military action against the US – published yesterday in Global Times.  The Chinese would undoubtedly calculate that doing so would be needlessly provocative and might be construed by Trump as a Chinese attempt to box him into a corner, which given Trump’s present behaviour and mood might only provoke him into escalating further.  However the warning would have hovered in the background throughout the call, and would have determined its atmosphere.

This is all very typical of the Chinese style of diplomacy: first the public statement setting out in clear language China’s warning, but doing so in a way (through an editorial in an official newspaper) that is intended to avoid escalating the crisis further; then the seemingly emollient call intended to save the other side’s face by providing them a line of retreat – of course to the place the Chinese want them to retreat to!

I would add that there is no doubt that Xi Jinping during this call was following a strategy previously agreed by the whole Chinese leadership.

Xi Jinping’s call to Donald Trump is definitely not the only call the Chinese will have made to the leaders of a foreign government over the last two days.  The Chinese are undoubtedly coordinating closely with their Russian ally – Moscow will have been consulted before Xi Jinping’s call to Trump and will have been informed about it in advance, and will also be fully briefed about its outcome – and it is a certainty that senior Chinese officials – including quite possibly Xi Jinping himself – have also been speaking to Kim Jong-un and to other officials of his government.

One other government that the Chinese are also certain to be in touch with is the South Korean government, with Seoul no doubt increasingly alarmed at the way the US seems prepared to risk South Korea’s very existence in its own quest for security.

When dealing with a country like North Korea and with a leader as proud, inexperienced and volatile as Donald Trump it is never easy to be sure, but my strong guess is that Chinese diplomacy over the last two days has been effective, and that the most dangerous point of the crisis is over.

If so then I expect the shouting match between Washington and Pyongyang which has inexplicably and mysteriously blown up over the last few days to start to subside.

What do you think?

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