Foreign Policy

China Confab With NoKo's Kim Is Tariff Gamesmanship

Beijing summoned its puppet to talks because Trump's trade moves are hurting.

Michael Swartz · Jan. 11, 2019

It was little noted in the traditional year-end media navel-gazing, but North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un actually made news by not making headlines. For the first time since he took power in 2011, the saber-ratting dictator did not test-launch a single missile during 2018. The last launch from North Korea came in November 2017, and although their Yongbyon nuclear facilities are “well maintained” according to satellite analysis, experts believe the facility is not fully up and running.

But any visit from Kim to his patron state of China makes news and raises discussion about the relationship between China and the United States. In this case, Kim used the Chinese visit to push for another summit with President Donald Trump, hoping that a second round of talks would produce “results that will be welcomed by the international community,” as Chinese state media reported after the meeting between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Those in the know, though, realize that one giant reason China has “tolerated” its pesky little nuclear-armed neighbor is the chaos North Korea’s nuclear ambitions created across the Pacific Ocean and the leverage that brought in China’s ambitious struggle to supplant the U.S. as the world’s superpower. Unfortunately for Beijing, Trump isn’t afraid to play hardball, so Kim’s visit to China was also meant to get China on board with North Korea’s bid for relief from the “maximum pressure” approach of economic sanctions put in place to keep Kim’s nuclear ambitions in check.

Getting China to buy in to a softening of sanctions would leave the U.S. as the lone hawk in the game, as South Korean President Moon Jae-in told reporters he would work with the international community for a partial easing of sanctions between North and South. Moon acknowledged, however, that the U.S. would still be a valuable ally in keeping “stability and peace” both for the Korean peninsula in particular and the northeastern region of Asia in general.

As the North Korean leader left Xi and climbed aboard his specially built train to return to Pyongyang, we can be sure that China’s leadership had its own message for Kim to pass along to Trump if a second summit, possibly conducted in Vietnam, indeed comes to pass. With a 90-day truce on tariffs reaching its halfway point this week, negotiations aimed at giving the U.S. “more balanced and reciprocal” trade have slowed to a snail’s pace, worrying the markets but — more important for the Chinese — putting pressure on their export-based economy. While nearly 90% of North Korea’s trade is with the Chinese, its paltry economy and population can’t compare to the prosperous American market and can’t begin to keep China’s factories humming.

No one knows how long Kim will refrain from testing his missile program absent a summit with President Trump. Perhaps he’s biding his time knowing Trump faces reelection next year. But it would surprise no one if that testing hiatus ends about the time additional tariffs are put in place on Chinese imports. There’s more than one way for China to assert its strength, and if landing a spacecraft on the far side of the moon weren’t enough, what better than to have a client state threaten your enemy?

Moreover, China needs to keep North Korea on a short leash. Andy Puzder — a onetime Trump choice for secretary of labor — stated his case in The Wall Street Journal, noting that the Chinese economy is teetering on the brink of recession because of Trump’s hardline approach to trade. “Mr. Xi’s speech was intended to reinforce the myth of an invincible Chinese dragon capable of bullying America into submission with its economic clout. The bluster is a sign of economic weakness,” wrote Puzder, adding, “President Trump’s trade strategy has exposed China’s vulnerability, demonstrating the risks of going toe-to-toe with a determined opponent that happens to be your largest customer.”

Regardless of how this meeting of two adversaries of Liberty went, America’s leadership is resolute and its economy is growing. As always, a stronger America is bad news for communists and dictators everywhere.

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