When Chinese and North Korean leaders — two of President Donald Trump’s key challengers — meet this week, the message to Trump will be clear: China is pivotal in any future negotiations with North Korea. And North Korea, meanwhile, has a friend in China.
“We will actively contribute to peace, stability, development and prosperity in the region by strengthening communication and coordination with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” said China’s President Xi Jinping on Wednesday, ahead of the two-day meeting in Pyongyang.
Both Xi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have been on the sharp end of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. Chinese exports to the U.S. have been hit by tariffs while North Korea’s have been hit with fresh sanctions.
China has been embroiled in an almost year-long trade war with the United States, as escalating tariffs have resulted in stalled negotiations and the exchange of heated rhetoric, with China’s foreign ministry saying the country is willing to “fight to the end.”
North Korea has also seen negotiations with the U.S. stall, as the Trump administration demands that Pyongyang dismantle its nuclear weapons program as well as its long-range ballistic missiles before offering any sanctions relief.
North Korea has asked for a step-by-step, reciprocal approach, saying it would gradually meet some U.S. demands in exchange for sanctions being lifted, but the Trump administration has refused.
China and North Korea share a border and have very close trade ties. The two leaders are likely to discuss trade and perhaps humanitarian assistance from Beijing to Pyongyang, which has been suffering under sanctions.
But Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat focusing on the Koreas, told ThinkProgress that while he’s not expecting to see any “big developments” come out of this meeting, it is “largely going to be about optics.”
“For North Korea, it’s a chance to reinforce for the world that it has China’s backing for its approach to nuclear diplomacy and sanctions relief, strengthening its bargaining position versus the United States,” said Oba. “For China, it’s a chance to show it remains central to the diplomatic action on Korean Peninsula issues.”
This is a very chaotic time for the Trump administration. In addition to the trade war with China and the stalled talks with North Korea, the president has promised mass deportations from the U.S., looks ready to threaten war with Iran, and is pushing Central American countries to stem migration — mostly via threats of aid cuts and tariffs.
While Oba isn’t certain how Kim or Xi might exploit any weakness in U.S. foreign policy, he noted that the Trump administration is “doing a number of things that play into North Korea’s hands more generally.”
“First, its North Korea policy remains uncoordinated, with President Trump saying one thing and advisers like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo saying something else. That allows North Korea to divide and conquer,” said Oba.
While Pompeo and Bolton have taken a hardline stance on Kim, the president has repeatedly lavished praise on the North Korean leader. But all the praise and flattery has not moved Kim to totally get rid of his country’s nuclear program, which is what Trump insists upon before offering any sanctions relief at all.
“And second, our North Korea policy has remained inflexible, which allows North Korea to paint us as the obstacle to progress and shore up the support of China and others in the region for its priorities, such as sanctions relief,” added Oba.
Xi, meanwhile, made Trump sweat over whether he would even meet with him at the G20 summit next week in Osaka.
But after weeks of asking — then demanding — that Xi meet with him at the G20, Trump on Tuesday morning tweeted that Xi had finally committed to meet with him:
Had a very good telephone conversation with President Xi of China. We will be having an extended meeting next week at the G-20 in Japan. Our respective teams will begin talks prior to our meeting.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 18, 2019
It’s worth noting that the president even threatened tariffs if Xi declined to have dinner with him — a remarkable strategy that could indicate the president is starting to feel the pressure to end the trade war.
The tariffs he’s imposed on Chinese imports, which China has reciprocated on U.S. goods it imports, have hit the agricultural sector hard. And as the additional tariffs that are currently being discussed in hearings go into effect, American consumers will start to feel the pain.
All told, it is estimated the 25% tariffs Trump has called for on all imports from China — worth about $540 billion last year — would raise the cost of goods for consumers and producers by $140 billion each year.
Americans businesses are also worried, which is why hundreds of businesses have asked to be removed from the list of imports subject to the tariffs.
While she doesn’t feel this is just a matter of optics, Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it’s clear that the leaders want to strengthen their relationship.
“One can’t rule out that Xi Jinping sees the opportunity to find some way to help resume the negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea — that he might play a mediating role that could then end up helping him in the trade deal with the United States,” said Glaser, adding that the meeting with Kim would “show the relevance of China and Xi Jinping to the possible resumption of negotiations.”
Indeed, Trump has, on several occasions, said that China could help the U.S. in that endeavor. He realizes that China is crucial.
Glaser says the best-case outcome from the Osaka meeting would be that both sides agree to resume negotiations, but that is unlikely, as China will not go back to the text agreed upon in an earlier draft of the deal. Furthermore, U.S. negotiators won’t budge on that language (mainly on the forced transfer of technology), nor will Trump lift the tariffs in the meantime.
Even if Trump returns from Osaka empty-handed, he is likely to try and sell the meeting as a success.
“Trump came back from Hanoi empty-handed and everyone praised him for it,” said Glaser, referring to President Trump’s last summit with Kim, which ended early, without an an agreement or at least scheduled future negotiations.
But the no-deal-is-better-than-a-bad-deal argument might not work out for trade talks. The administration then has to consider whether to hold tight and limit the damage to the agricultural sector, or go ahead with the new tariffs and spread it to the American consumer at large.
The Chinese, while far more patient than the Americans, would “much rather go back to the table and get a deal,” said Glaser. “They want a better relationship with the United States.”