It is rare for the Financial Times to get excited about the news, but yesterday it devoted most of its front page to an exclusive interview with Donald Trump. The betting is that the story is even bigger than the paper realizes.
Trump’s key point is that he wants China’s full cooperation in a decisive move to shut down North Korea’s on-again-off-again nuclear-weapons program. He said: “China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t. And if they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.”
Trump is on to something. If he plays this right, not only will he dispose of a bizarre problem that has repeatedly discombobulated American East Asian policy over the last three decades, but he can show up several of his predecessors as intellectually challenged milquetoasts. In the process he will turn the tables on innumerable critics who see him as a clueless—if not positively dangerous—foreign-policy neophyte.
At the heart of the North Korean controversy is a Chinese double game. On the one hand, Chinese leaders pretend to be as eager as their American counterparts to shut down the North Korean nuclear program. On the other hand, they never seem to use their influence in Pyongyang to clinch the deal.
Yet it is hard to exaggerate the extent of Beijing’s influence. If the CIA Factbook is to be believed, at last count the Chinese supplied more than 76 percent of all North Korea’s imports and bought more than 75 percent of its exports. The North Koreans are heavily dependent on China for, among other vital supplies, their oil. Their moribund industrial sector would grind to a halt without copious supplies of spare parts and indeed entire machines sourced through China.
Then there are North Korea’s external air links. The vast majority of foreign visitors reach Pyongyang via four Chinese airports: Beijing Capital, Shanghai Pudong, Shenyang, and Dandong.
Trump seems to be offering Beijing a choice: either apply effective pressure on Pyongyang or stand aside while the United States takes a hands-on approach. That latter option would appear—at least for negotiating purposes—to include the threat of American military action.
The chances are, however, that it won’t come to that. If Trump holds tight, Beijing will blink first. After all, Pyongyang’s antics have long since ceased to be a joke. If press reports are to be believed, the North Korean missile program has lately made such strides that the Kim Jong-un regime may be able to deliver a nuclear strike to the U.S. mainland by 2020. While more thoughtful analysts may question that timeline, the reality is that North Korea’s repeated boasting of its intention to build missiles with such a capability leaves Beijing with little room for maneuver.
Once Beijing’s cooperation is secured, Pyongyang would surely have to comply, not only dismantling its program but opening up to United Nations inspections.
Even if on further study it turns out that that program is not nearly as advanced as is widely believed, it is past time Washington swatted this irritating gnat. The truth is that the constant resurfacing of this issue has long since gotten in the way of Washington’s ability to think straight about the larger East Asian region.
One problem is that North Korea’s most egregious antics always seem to coincide with efforts by Washington to pry open the mercantilist markets of the larger East Asian economies. That has repeatedly proved disproportionately unfortunate. The fact is that once the Pentagon takes the controls, trade policy gets short shrift. Always the story is that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are vitally needed allies—yet allies whose loyalty somehow hangs on the weakest of threads. Any attempt to talk turkey with them on trade would somehow endanger the entire East Asian order.
Even where China is concerned, the Pentagon tiptoes around the subject of trade. This despite the fact that U.S. imports from China, at $474 billion in 2016, represented more than three times U.S. exports to China.
In reality, the size of America’s China trade deficit—$361 billion in 2016—is Trump’s biggest stick in negotiating with Beijing. As Trump has repeatedly pointed out, China needs America far more than America needs China.
It is time an American president understood this.
Eamonn Fingleton is the author In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate in the Coming Era of Chinese Hegemony (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008).