There can no longer be any doubt: President Xi of China is playing President Trump.
After all, in the last few weeks we've learned that:
- China has ignored U.N. sanctions agreements by continuing to smuggle oil to North Korea.
- China sent a nuclear scientist defector back to North Korea, where he was either killed or committed suicide.
- China has made significant advances in consolidating its island militarization efforts in the South and East China seas.
- China has escalated its direct military threats to Taiwan.
Of course, it's not terribly surprising that the Chinese are behaving in this manner. As I warned during Trump's recent visit to Beijing, absent a U.S. willingness to consistently pressure Xi Jinping on a deliver-the-results basis, the Chinese leader will run circles around America.
The overriding problem here is that President Trump seems unable to view his relationship with Xi outside of the orbit of personal pleasantries. When Xi pledges to Trump that he shares the American president's concerns on North Korea, Trump believes he has found a realist partner.
When Xi praises Trump and adorns him with pomp, Trump believes he has won respect and political influence.
When Xi agrees to vote with Trump at the U.N., Trump believes he has achieved a diplomatic breakthrough.
What the president must come to understand is that China has very few shared interests with the United States, on North Korea or any other issue. On the contrary, most of China's interests are countermanding to our own. In the Pacific and Indian Oceans, China is building a hegemony of power that allows Beijing to dictate political decisions onto sovereign democracies. With regards to the rest of the world, China seeks trade and commerce but only under its own rules of feudal power.
Indeed, North Korea is actually useful to Beijing in that it offers a means of constraining American power and an excuse for China to extract concessions from Washington. "If we produce X pressure on Kim Jong Un," the Chinese gambit goes, "you, America, should do Y for us."
Thus far, that "Y" has been U.S. acquiescence to China's island construction campaign and Trump's reluctance to impose trade sanctions on China.
But what has the U.S. got in return?
Pretty much nothing.
Sure, China has made some slight restrictions on Pyongyang, but the oil is still flowing, the Chinese banks are still sheltering Kim's foreign capital, and the rocket man is still firing off his rockets. Trump tweets and Xi laughs.
It's time for Trump to flip those roles.
First, the president should immediately sanction major Chinese banking institutions (not just the small ones) that are actively facilitating North Korea money flows.
Second, Trump should warn that absent a change in North Korean behavior, the U.S. will introduce sanctions on Chinese industries which dump products or thieve American intellectual property. Don't get me wrong, I'm pro-free trade and recognize that this will raise U.S. prices, but we must do everything possible to ensure China pressures Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table.
Third, Trump should utilize his more human interest-centric vision for the Indian-Pacific and, respecting his campaign pledges, begin bilateral trade negotiations with the Philippines and Vietnam.
Fourth, doing all he can to persuade the Indian and Australian navies to participate, Trump should order the U.S. military to engage in highly visible show-of-force deployments in the South and East China seas.
Ultimately, all of these actions should be tied together in the pursuit of a singular objective: fostering China's rapid understanding that its failure to confront North Korea will mean its own pain, not just America's. At that point, we can begin to productively negotiate with a Kim Jong Un who is feeling the heat from Beijing.
Absent these realist choices, Trump might as well keep playing with Twitter.