The Chinese call it killing with a borrowed knife, and they are masters of the duplicitous tactic.
Everyone in New Delhi knows about China’s first “knife”. Mao Zedong’s Beijing, beginning in the first half of the 1970s, proliferated nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan to keep India off balance, and now China is using a new knife, North Korea, against the United States and its allies, Japan and South Korea.
The cost of China’s dangerous proliferation policies, which work in the short term to keep its perceived adversaries at bay, is the long-term enmity of the Indian and American states, two powerful democracies. Call China’s tactics smart and its strategy terrible.
Many Chinese analysts and diplomats believe their country should ditch the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as that horrific regime undercuts their country’s position in the region and their standing in the world. That is true, but their progressive views are not in fact Beijing’s policy. Beijing’s policy is to keep Fatty the Third, the Chinese nickname for Kim Jong Un, in power in Pyongyang.
So far, China’s tactics are working well in the short-term. Every time the North Koreans do something provocative, Washington sends an envoy to the Chinese capital seeking cooperation. President Barack Obama’s last chief diplomat, John Kerry, knew the way to Beijing well. The most recent Secretary of State to make that long journey is Rex Tillerson.
Last weekend, Tillerson conferred with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi. In private sessions, Trump’s envoy undoubtedly threatened sanctions on Chinese enterprises and banks for their participation in the North’s weapons trafficking and other illicit commerce, something American officials talked about before he arrived in Beijing. In public, however, Tillerson’s words were much to Beijing’s liking.
Tillerson, inexplicably, endorsed China’s model for Sino-US ties, mentioning Beijing’s oft-repeated phrase: “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.”
As the Chinese heard it, the Secretary of State, by using their preferred formulation, had promised the Trump administration would not challenge their expansionist and predatory policies. Obviously, the American diplomat did not think he was agreeing in advance to capitulate to Beijing, but that’s how the Chinese heard his words—and that’s how the region probably understood him as well. So from the perspective of Chinese policymakers, they scored a big win when Tillerson was forced to come to Beijing to talk about North Korea.
North Korea also keeps America focused on its threatening behaviour—and distracted from other issues of importance to Washington. As a Trump administration official told Reuters this month, “nobody is going to be negotiating core American interests” with Beijing, but there are “areas of emphasis”. “You can only fight on so many fronts at once,” the official said, “and given that the North Korean threat is accelerating, there is an opportunity for us to prioritize Chinese assistance there, and perhaps not prioritize areas of disagreement we might otherwise be very vocal about.”
It looks, from this official’s words, that Washington may not be pressing Beijing on issues like the South China Sea or mercantilist trade practices or cybertheft, because the Trump administration believes it must deal with what the President himself sees as the “greatest immediate threat” to the US, North Korea. Trump, who ran against China in the election, could very well believe he needs to partner with Beijing now.
That is what Xi Jinping surely must be hoping when he arrives in Florida next month at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s ornate Palm Beach resort. Yet Xi may be in for a surprise when he meets the new American President for the first time. Trump is wilful, arrogant, ambitious, and disrespectful of convention. In short, he is capable of giving Xi an especially difficult time.
And that is probably the reason why Xi is flying half way around the world to see Trump, rather than the other way around. Trump is breaking the recent mould, where American leaders signal subservience to China by travelling to the magnificent Chinese capital.
There will be much to talk about when Xi goes to Mar-a-Lago. The New York Times reported on 19 March that China, according to the Institute for Science and International Security, has “allowed large quantities of materials used to make a component of hydrogen bombs to pass through its borders to the North.”
Moreover, the same group reported last year that Chinese enterprises have been selling uranium hexafluoride and other items for the North’s uranium weapons program.
Moreover, missile experts have noticed that the solid-fuel missiles that the North tested on 24 August and 12 February bear an uncanny resemblance to China’s Jl-1 missile. This is not to say Beijing handed over the specs—North Korea could have gotten the technology from a country to which China sold it—but it is to say that Trump could start asking some pointed questions of his guest.
The Obama administration did not press China when North Korea in April 2012 showed off six of its KN-08 missiles riding on Chinese transporter-erector-launchers. The display of Chinese TELs suggested that Beijing was using the North as a big dagger pointed at the heart of America.
The US is not particularly concerned about the North’s longest-range missile as a weapon. The Taepodong-2 takes weeks to transport, assemble, fuel, and test. American forces can kill them on the pad. The US is, however, concerned about the KN-08 and its variant, the KN-14. These nuclear-capable missiles, carried on Chinese trucks, can hide before they are launched, making them hard to destroy on the ground.
Beijing alienated India by arming Pakistan; Chinese leaders, by arming North Korea, are making America an adversary. Xi Jinping, therefore, may find the reception cold in Trump’s sunny, warm Florida.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang