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But opposites attract and in the next few months the two global superpowers are going to need each other more than ever If they are going to peacefully resolve the crisis in the Korean Peninsula.
Pyongyang’s ballistic missile launches since January have not only been early tests for the Trump administration’s ability to navigate the minefield of Asia-Pacific geopolitics, but also indicators of future Sino-American ties.
North Korea fears closer ties between China and the US, and wants to manipulate whatever prickly issues may keep the two from strategic cooperation; early on Wednesday it conducted yet another test firing a ballistic missile into its eastern waters.
But it’s tactic may be as dead as the failed “high-thrust” missile engine it tested last month.
Gone is the tension over the One China policy which Trump had hinted at shelving shortly before his presidential inauguration.
And the war of words over Washington’s anger that China is allegedly building bases on artificially constructed islands in the South China Sea appear to now be muted … if at least for the short term.
In making the rounds of news talk shows ahead of Xi’s visit, administration officials have admitted that the North Korean threat is Washington’s greatest national security issue and that it will top the agenda when the two leaders meet.
But both countries have very different approaches to managing the crisis.
In the wake of the failed missile engine test March 17, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the threat from North Korea had reached new heights and was now imminent.
Washington took on a more aggressive stance following the rocket engine test, with some pundits suggesting a military option.
Tillerson, who had visited both Japan and South Korea prior to China, had indicated that the US was running out of patience.
Earlier this week, the Trump White House blamed the current crisis on the Obama administration for not acting strongly enough to discourage North Korea’s determination to pursue a nuclear weaponization program.
But North Korea isn’t the only problem, mainstream Chinese realpolitik holds.
Beijing and Washington have traded barbs (even during the Obama administration) over accountability in the Korean crisis.
Trump wants China to use its economic leverage – it shares a border with North Korea where US officials estimate 90 per cent of goods are transported – to pressure Pyongyang.
China has endorsed Security Council resolutions condemning North Korea’s missile tests, and it has said it would work with its partners to resuscitate the Six-Party Talks to resolve the crisis.
The US says China hasn’t done enough. In statements earlier in the week, US officials hinted that Washington might go it alone in dealing with North Korea.
Tone it down, China says
It is that kind of talk that exacerbates the situation and feeds North Korean intransigence, says Beijing.
“The cause and crux of the Korean nuclear issue rest with the US rather than China. The core of the issue is the conflict between the DPRK and the US,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying earlier said.
“It is better for the doer to undo what he has done. The US should shoulder its due responsibilities,” Hua added.
North Korea has traditionally blamed the US for the elevated state of tension and has said that joint South Korean-US military exercises are perceived as direct national threats to Pyongyang.
Both China and Russia have also strongly criticized the US decision to deploy the THAAD weapons system in South Korea saying it will ignite a weapons race in the region.
The US began last month to deploy parts of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea and Japan.
The deployment “doesn’t help achieve the objective of denuclearization in the peninsula, doesn’t benefit maintaining peace and stability in the peninsula. It’s going toward the opposite direction of solving the problem via dialogue and negotiation,” China’s foreign ministry has said about the weapons system.
As one of the most advanced missile defense systems in the world, THAAD can intercept and destroy ballistic missiles inside or just outside the atmosphere during their final phase of flight.
Despite claims by Washington and Seoul that the missile shield would be focused solely on North Korea, Beijing says the US deployment would pose considerable threat to neighboring countries.
“Once deployed, the system would pose a direct threat to the strategic security of China and Russia,” China’s Foreign Ministry has said.
Trump has Tweeted acknowledgment that talks with Xi will be difficult. Both countries have too much to lose if they are forced into a constant gridlock over policy differences.
Trump has hinted that he may offer China economic incentive to more aggressively pressure North Korea; the Chinese are interested in mutual trade benefits with the US.
But the Chinese may have the advantage. Since Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, countries which may once have eyed China warily have now started to consider asking Xi to join that economic bloc.
Ironic? Very, since the TPP was designed to counter Chinese influence in the region.
Xi is now also being viewed as the protector of free trade and globalization. His appearance at Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum in January was more than just opportune as it showed that America’s withdrawal from international treaties in favor of protectionism was leaving a space that China was now more than happy to occupy.
Some headlines in recent weeks have hinted at China’s rising stature as world economic leader, while American politics focus on the Trump administration officials’ involvement with Russian agents, wiretapping, surveillance and filibusters. Allegedly.
Market factors may also have delivered a blow to what Trump believed to be his ace in the hole – currency manipulation.
The US president has for months accused China of intervening in currency markets to keep its yuan (renminbi) low to leverage its exports.
But the yuan is up about one per cent against the dollar year on year.
Between March 5 and 27, the yuan was in slow, yet constant gain against the greenback.