Experts warn Trump against 'alienating' China over North Korea

FILE - In this April 7, 2017, file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk together at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. Despite Trump's hopes for China's help in dealing with North Korea and his recent tough talk on the matter, the two sides seem to be growing further apart as their approaches and concerns diverge. China shows no sign of caving in to U.S. pressure to tighten the screws on North Korea, while the North's recent missile tests have done little to rattle Beijing. China's bottom line continues to hold: no to any measures that might topple Kim Jong Un's hard-line communist regime. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

The Trump administration had harsh words for China following North Korea's second successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test in the month of July, accusing Beijing of not taking action to rein in North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-Un. But according to experts, the president could be understating the steps China has already taken to put pressure on North Korea.

Over the past two years, North Korea has been developing its nuclear program at an accelerated pace. The regime successfully detonated two nuclear devices in 2016 and Friday's ICBM test marks the 18th missile test this year, putting the North on a path to double the number of medium and long-range missile tests over last year.

In a series of tweets over the weekend, Donald Trump appeared to blame China for failing to prevent the advancement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program and stop the destabilizing missile tests.

"I am very disappointed in China," the president stated over Twitter. "Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet ... they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will not longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!"

U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley followed up the president's statement underscoring that the United States is "Done talking about NKorea. China is aware they must act."

On Sunday, Haley announced the United States would not convene an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council to address the ICBM test, pointing again to China as the pivotal holdout, not doing enough to stop North Korea's provocations.

"China must decide whether it is finally willing to take this vital step," Haley said, implying that Beijing has not shown itself willing to seriously challenge Kim Jong-Un. "The time for talk is over."

The U.S. military responded to the Friday missile test with a show of force, flying two supersonic B1-B bombers over the Korean peninsula alongside Japanese and South Korean fighter jets.

The commander of the U.S. Air Force commander in the Pacific issued a statement over the weekend reemphasizing long-standing U.S. military policy. "If called upon, we are ready to respond with rapid, lethal, and overwhelming force at a time and place of our choosing," Gen. Terrence J. O'Shaughnessy said.

Barry Blechman, co-founder of the Stimson Center, a national security think-tank in Washington, noted that despite the very public pressure the Trump administration is putting on China, they have actually come a long way under the new administration.

"China has done much more since President Trump took office," Blechman said. "He should take credit for that."

China has continued to tighten trade with North Korea, cutting back on coal and iron ore purchases and is hosting fewer workers, in line with sanctions imposed in late 2016. For North Korea, China represents the economic lifeline, accounting for between 80 to 90 percent of the country's trade with the outside world.

Those trade reductions have largely gone unacknowledged by President Trump who tweeted after the July 4th ICBM test that trade between China and North Korea had grown by 40 percent during the first three months of 2017. "So much for China working with us."

Blechman argued that since Trump's first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April at his Mar-a-Lago resort, Beijing has in fact demonstrated a more serious commitment to pressuring Pyongyang. "So it's foolish to criticize them publicly."

Dr. James Walsh, board member at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and researcher at MIT also sees China taking important steps in line with the international community.

"I think the president is wrong. We have gotten China's help" Walsh said, again citing the tightening of coal, iron and gasoline trade between the two countries.

"If you're trying to get a country to cooperate with you, it's not clear to me that threatening them publicly and insulting them is a good path to cooperation," he continued, noting that under that approach, the administration is "as likely to alienate" China as to induce them to cooperate.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry reacted to Trump's criticism emphasizing that the North Korean nuclear issue did not arise because of China.

"All parties should have a correct understanding of this," the Ministry said in a statement to Reuters, noting that the international community has widely recognized China's efforts to seek a resolution.

China's Commerce Minister Qian Keming also issued a statement advising the U.S. government to keep issues of trade and North Korea separate.

"We think the North Korea nuclear issue and China-US trade are issues that are in two completely different domains. They aren't related. They should not be discussed together," Qian advised.

Even if trade with the United States is not a factor for Beijing, China's own economic interests are deeply connected to the stability of their neighbors to the south.

Imposing crippling sanctions on North Korea would be "very easy" for China, as President Trump said in his tweet, "but they don't see it in their interest to do that," Blechman noted.

If the "vital step" the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. wants to see from China means the government in Pyongyang collapses, China potentially has the most to lose. The disintegration of the Kim Jong-Un's regime could leave China in the position of sharing an 880 mile border with a failed nuclear weapons state. China would also be faced with an influx of refugees, putting additional strains on the country's already sluggish economic growth.

For months President Trump has warned President Xi of economic consequences if China doesn't step up pressure on North Korea, and the administration is even weighing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from China. But it is not clear to what end Trump is pressuring his Chinese counterpart, since the administration has not come out with a broader strategy.

According to Dr. Walsh, there are elements within the Trump administration working behind the scenes towards new diplomatic talks with North Korea.

"I can say, there are diplomats in the Trump administration who are working very hard on this piece [getting North Korea back to the negotiating table], though they don't talk about it," Walsh said.

The last international effort to negotiate the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula broke down in 2009, when North Korea backed out of the so-called Six Party talks with the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea.

One indication that the Trump team could be pursuing a broader diplomatic approach is the successful though tragic release of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student taken prisoner by North Korean authorities who died shortly after he was returned to the United States in a vegetative state.

"That was a sad and tragic incident, but the only reason why he got back to the U.S. is because Mr. Trump, to his credit, engaged in quiet diplomacy, which was effective," Walsh noted. "What I think they are trying to do now is build on that initial success and get everyone to the negotiating table."

Walsh, one of the few Americans to travel to North Korea to engage with officials on nuclear issues, explained that getting to the table will mean both sides must abandon all preconditions.

If Trump is able to get North Korea and other key players to the table, his administration could take home "a major policy victory," Walsh said, ideally negotiating a freeze in Kim's nuclear program.

If the administration's insistence that the time for talking is over, and that means no attempts to negotiate, the other options are grim.

Defense Secretary James Mattis has issued grave warnings about the consequences of a U.S. military strike to take out North Korea's nuclear program and its leadership.

A more limited military option could involve targeting a test missile before it is launched. President Bill Clinton was presented with this option by his defense secretary, but he opted for a diplomatic approach, in part because of the unpredictability of Pyongyang's response.

"Time is of the essence," Walsh advised. Between the growing number of North Korean missile tests and increased number of military exercises between the United States and regional allies, there is a realistic chance of "an accidental war" on the Korean peninsula.

"I don't think there's going to be a deliberate war, I don't think the North Koreans are going to commit suicide by initiating a war they will most certainly lose," he explained. "But you can still get a war happening on the peninsula through miscalculation....little things that suddenly escalate in ways people don't expect."

The best safeguard to prevent an inadvertent war is "direct and regular communication with your adversary."

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