North Korea: Donald Trump’s romance with China’s Xi has cooled, ’ass-kicking’ could lie ahead

The idea of a ‘big marriage’ to tackle issues such as North Korea is dead and what might come from their G20 meeting is unknown, but it will be tense.

“Occasionally, yes, toughness does involve some old-fashioned ass-kicking,” Donald Trump mused in “Surviving at the Top” [1].

In his dealings with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, though, the US president has until recently preferred to kiss.

“He is a very good man ... he loves China and he loves the people of China,” Trump fawned after their first date in April at his Mar-a-Lago estate [2].

In another interview he boasted: “I really liked him a lot. I think he liked me. We have a great chemistry together.” [3]

But as the pair prepare for their second tête-à-tête on the sidelines of the G20 in Hamburg this week, the passion appears to be fading. “So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try!” Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning [4] before setting off for Europe on Air Force One.

Experts warn that, after a brief and unusual honeymoon [5], relations between the world’s top two economies are veering towards the rocks after Xi and Trump failed to find common ground over how to rein in North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

Kim’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile [6] aimed at the “American bastards” this week did nothing to improve the atmosphere between Washington and Beijing.

Björn Conrad, the vice president of Berlin’s Mercator Institute for China Studies, said that on reaching the White House Trump had shelved campaign promises to confront Beijing over what he termed its “rapacious” trade practices [7]. He did so in the hope Xi would help him thwart Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

Beijing, however, had been unwilling to forge such an alliance, meaning the risk of a full-blown US-China trade conflict was now back. “Now the focus of the Trump administration shifts once more – and China is back in the cross-hairs,” Conrad said.

Zhu Feng, the director of Nanjing University’s institute of international studies, agreed ties were entering “a new phase of uncertainty”: “The future of US-China relations is worrying.”

Trump’s shock election fuelled fears of a clash between the world’s top two economies [8]. On the stump and in print, Trump had spent years denigrating Beijing, particularly over the damage he alleged it had inflicted on the US economy.

“There are people who wish I wouldn’t refer to China as our enemy. But that’s exactly what they are,” he wrote in his campaign manifesto, Great Again. When one of Trump’s first post-election acts was to thumb his nose at Beijing by fielding a call from Taiwan’s president those fears intensified [9].

Chinese New Year, however, appeared to herald a new dawn. In February, Ivanka Trump made a peacemaking visit to the Chinese embassy in Washington [10]. Her husband, Jared Kushner, emerged as a key intermediary between his billionaire father-in-law and China’s top leadership. Two months later, Xi and Trump finally met at Mar-a-Lago, and the US president’s rhetoric pivoted immediately from insults to unbridled affection. “I think in the long term were going to have a very, very great relationship,” Trump gushed, heaping praise on Xi and his “incredibly talented wife” [11].

In recent weeks, however, the tone has soured, amid signs Trump is losing faith in Xi’s willingness to act on North Korea. In late June he vented his frustrations on Twitter: “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried.”

Then he bared his teeth. Last week Washington unveiled sanctions against a Chinese bank linked to North Korea, announced a major arms sale to Taiwan and sailed a warship close to a disputed island in the South China Sea - moves experts described as unmistakable snubs designed to convey US dissatisfaction with Xi’s regime.

During a phone call on Monday, Xi warned his US counterpart of “negative factors” that were creeping into what Trump had termed their “great relationship” [12].

Asked if the Xi-Trump bromance was really over [13], a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry replied tetchily [14]: “The ‘honeymoon period’ between China and the United States ... is an interpretation of the media. Officials from both the United States and China ... have not employed this expression.”

Orville Schell, the director of the Centre on US-China Relations at New York’s Asia Society, said Trump’s effusive courtship of Xi had been part of a genuine bid to propose “a big marriage” that would have seen the two powers confront North Korea together.

But the US president considered China’s response to his advances – which included halting imports of North Korean coal – inadequate, “so now Trump is starting to drift away and to turn up the heat” [15].

“I think Xi has missed a great opportunity, actually,” Schell said. “Had he buddied up with Trump and put the screws on North Korea I think he would have gained immensely in other realms like trade, the South China Sea, the East China Sea. But it seems he is not willing or able to really declare himself married to the US and Trump on the question of North Korea.”

Conrad said Trump had hoped that by teaming up with Beijing on North Korea he could achieve “a quick and very visible foreign policy win”. “And then it turns out - as it always does - that reality is just much more complicated than that.”

“I wouldn’t say it was a mistake [for Xi] not to take that offer in exchange for peace on the trade front,” he added. “I don’t think there was real space [for a deal].”

On the eve of their G20 meeting, Trump has hinted his proposal to the Communist party chief still stands. “Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!” he tweeted on Tuesday after Pyongyang’s latest missile test [16].

Schell predicted Trump would make one final pass at China’s leader in Hamburg: “I think this is the last flight out for Xi.” But it was an offer Xi was likely to decline. “They are such a deeply conservative regime that they have a very difficult time imagining real paradigm shifts and really perceiving how the world has changed and where new convergences of common interests actually lie, à la Kissinger.”

Conrad said the question now was how destructive the fall-out would be. “There will be tensions over trade with China - this is almost certain. But there are still different ways for this to play out,” he said.

Conrad said the best case scenario was a “subtle” trade dispute that stayed within the realms of World Trade Organisation rules. The worst: provocative and blatantly protectionist steps from Trump that thrust both sides into “full-blown trade war mode”.

After months of simpering, “some old-fashioned ass-kicking” may be back on the cards.

Tom Phillips in Beijing

Additional reporting by Wang Zhen


US-China honeymoon over: Washington sanctions Chinese bank and sells arms to Taiwan

Experts say relationship is cooling between presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping as US loses patience over North Korea and South China Sea.

Relations between the world’s two largest economies look to be entering a new phase of turbulence after the US punctured Chinese celebrations of the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return [17] by unveiling sanctions against a Chinese bank linked to North Korea and a major arms sale to Taiwan.

The US state department on Thursday gave the green light to a total of $1.4bn in arms sales to Taiwan [18], a self-governing island which China considers its own territory.

Sanctions were also announced targeting a Chinese bank accused of serving as “a conduit for illicit North Korean financial activity”.

Two Chinese individuals and the Bank of Dandong, which US Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin said was an institution of “primary money-laundering concern”, were blacklisted from the US financial system.

“This bank has served as a gateway for North Korea to access the US and international financial systems, facilitating millions of dollars of transactions for companies involved in North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” Mnuchin told reporters. “The United States will not stand for such action.”

Mnuchin claimed the move was not retribution for a lack of Chinese action over North Korea. “This is not directed at China, this is directed at a bank, as well as individuals and entities in China,” he said.

However, both the sanctions and the arms sale are likely to anger China and experts said both moves clearly represented a deliberate response from a Trump White House that is losing patience with Beijing.

The US also chose the first day of Xi’s visit to call for more democracy in Hong Kong saying China should respect civil liberties, including press freedom.

The timing of the US actions – just ahead of the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Beijing on 1 July – was particularly provocative, experts in US-China relations said.

Bill Bishop, a Washington-based China specialist who publishes the influential Sinocism newsletter [19], said the decision to announce the arms sale and sanctions as president Xi Jinping arrived in Hong Kong to lead celebrations there was a calculated snub: “It is very symbolic and it is basically raining on Xi’s parade in Hong Kong.”

Following a two-day summit between Xi and US president Donald Trump at the latter’s Mar-a-Lago estate in April [20], ties between the US and China appeared to have warmed.

Trump, who had once accused China of being a top US enemy, hailed Xi as “a great guy” with whom he had enjoyed “chemistry”. The US president even backed away from claims that China was a currency manipulator.

However, Bishop said Trump’s administration appeared to have lost patience with China’s reluctance to make concessions on issues including trade and North Korea. “The honeymoon is over and the fact is it was a pretty crappy honeymoon : I think they slept in different beds,” Bishop said.

Washington has also become increasingly frustrated with Beijing’s continued militarisation of islands it claims in the South China Sea, a vital route for half of all global commercial shipping.

Speaking in Sydney this month, US secretary of defence James Mattis said China’s construction of bases on islands were marked by a “disregard for international law … [and] its contempt for other nations’ interests”, remarks that Beijing later condemned as “irresponsible”.

A US-based thinktank released new satellite imagery on Thursday showing freshly-built missile shelters, radar and communications facilities on three of the island reefs controlled by China [21].

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of Washington’s center for strategic and international studies, said images of Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs in the Spratly Islands also show housing for long-range surface-to-air missiles. Photos showed construction of underground structures, “likely candidates to house munitions”, AMTI said.

Last month, a US navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief reef in a contentious so-called freedom of navigation operation [22], the first such challenge since Trump took power.

“Beijing can now deploy military assets, including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers, to the Spratly Islands at any time,” AMTI said.

The thinktank said new images showed a very large antennae array has been installed on Mischief reef that may boosts Beijing’s ability to monitor the surrounding waters.

“We are definitely into a new phase of US-China relations … now we are really, I think, entering into a much tougher phase. There is going to be a lot more friction in the relationship,” said Bishop.

“It’s already hot in DC and it is probably going to get a lot hotter.”

Tom Phillips in Hong Kong and Oliver Holmes in Bangkok

* The Guardian. Friday 30 June 2017 05.33 BST Last modified on Friday 30 June 2017 16.35 BST:
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/30/us-china-honeymoon-over-washington-arms-taiwan-sanctions-bank