Trump wanted China to deal with North Korea — it’s not going well

Repeated missteps and a failure to develop a coherent policy have tripped the administration up.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Files

President Donald Trump’s plan to have China deal with North Korea’s nuclear program so the United States won’t have to isn’t going very well.

On Tuesday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said as much.

“Recently, certain people, talking about the Korean peninsula nuclear issue, have been exaggerating and giving prominence to the so-called ‘China responsibility theory,’” said Geng Shuang, a foreign ministry spokesman, alluding to the United States. “I think this either shows lack of a full, correct knowledge of the issue, or there are ulterior motives for it, trying to shift responsibility.”

The comments just one week after North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile potentially capable of reaching the United States. The demonstration was a clear sign that U.S. efforts to discourage the country’s nuclear ambitions are failing — efforts that have, in large part, centered on forcing the Chinese government to tackle the problem.

China’s refusal to crack down on North Korea isn’t surprising, especially given Trump’s erratic foreign policy.

On the campaign trail, Trump accused China of taking U.S. jobs and manipulating currency, threatened a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods, and said that China had created global warming in order to thwart U.S. manufacturing.

After taking office, relations were initially tense. Trump broke with protocol and took a congratulatory call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen following his election, an action that infuriated Chinese officials. Adding insult to injury, he later gave an interview calling into question the “One China” policy, an enduring norm that countries must choose between diplomatic relations with either Taiwan or China (notably, many nations still carry on economic relations with both, including the United States). Further heightening tensions, China seized a U.S. military drone in December, leading the United States to request the drone’s immediate return.

But then relations appeared to warm. When Chinese premier Xi Jinping visited the United States in April, he spent time with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s resort. The visit was a major victory for Xi: Trump walked back accusations of currency manipulation, an about-face that, he suggested, was a strategic move meant to prompt action on North Korea.

Last month, Trump backtracked again, and the State Department introduced new U.S. sanctions against two Chinese citizens, a Chinese company, and a Chinese bank, and greenlighted a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan. These moves, the administration has claimed, are meant to pressure China, particularly on North Korea. But that strategy hasn’t worked, in large part because, like many foreign governments, China’s leadership doesn’t know how seriously to take the Trump administration’s threats.

“A lot of the conversations between China experts are about just how valid these threats are,” Melanie Hart, director of China Policy at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news website housed at the Center for American Progress.) “The administration has made a lot of statements that haven’t played out. At this point, no foreign government knows where the administration stands.”

Chinese government officials are hesitant to take on the North Korea issue, arguing that the fall of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would cause a swelling of refugees pouring into China. But experts told ThinkProgress the issue goes beyond that — North Korea also serves as a buffer between China and South Korea, a key U.S. ally. If South Korea gains the upper hand in the peninsula, a heightened U.S. military presence is likely to grow on China’s border. Trade implications are also severe; North Korea is heavily isolated from the international community, counting China as its only real major trading partner. Moreover, China’s hopes to revive its economically-distressed northeastern rust belt have hinged on North Korea — something Beijing still remains optimistic about.

But the Trump administration does not appear to have taken these factors into account. Instead, Trump has alternated between threatening and coaxing the Eastern superpower — an approach that doesn’t seem to be working.

It’s a problem, Hart said, that has more to do with Trump than anyone else. Trump’s decision to use Taiwan to pressure China was a misstep, she explained, one exacerbated by his back-and-forth over currency manipulation and general inability to strike a consistent tone in conversations with Xi.

“There are strategic planners, experts, and staff at the State Department and elsewhere who are working on these issues and have been for years — that’s clear,” she emphasized. “But it’s the president. He blows it every time.”

That trend is a major stumbling point, one that could have serious ramifications for the United States. While it’s unclear what the Trump administration will do with Tuesday’s comments, Hart noted that there are few options left when it comes to North Korea that weren’t considered by Barack Obama’s administration, save military action, which U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has indicated is a possibility.

“What we have to do is prepare all options,” McMaster said last last month. “The threat is much more immediate now. We can’t repeat the same failed approach of the past,” he added.

Given the historic lack of coordination between Trump and key advisers, it remains to be seen whether “all options” will actually be employed. If they are, Trump’s role in facilitating any action will be murky at best.

“A lot of people are working on this issue,” Hart said, but Trump isn’t doing much to help. “He undercuts them,” she added, “every time.”