In an interview with the Financial Times coming less than a week ahead of his meeting with China’s president Xi Jinping in Mar A Lago (Xi, however, will not be staying at Trump’s “Winter palace” as the SCMP reports) Donald Trump has warned the US “will take unilateral action to eliminate the nuclear threat from North Korea unless China increases pressure on the regime in Pyongyang.”
Among the key topics for discussion with Xi Jinping, the US president said he would focus on the growing threat from Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program when he hosts the Chinese president at his Florida resort this week in their first meeting.
“China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t,” Mr Trump said in the Oval Office. “If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.”
But he made clear that he would deal with North Korea with or without China’s help. Asked if he would consider a “grand bargain” — where China pressures Pyongyang in exchange for a guarantee that the US would later remove troops from the Korean peninsula — Mr Trump said:
“Well if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.”
As a reminder, shortly after the latest North Korean ballistic missile test, China banned all coal imports from North Korea, effectively imposing a major economic blockade (coal accounts for up to 40% of North Korean exports, virtually all of its to China); that appears to be insufficient for Trump.
As the FT notes, the White House views North Korea as the most imminent threat to the US after Barack Obama warned his successor about the progress Pyongyang had made developing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. In a separate interview, KT McFarland, the deputy White House national security adviser, told the FT that “there is a real possibility that North Korea will be able to hit the US with a nuclear-armed missile by the end of the first Trump term.”
The National Security Council has completed a review of options on North Korea that Mr Trump ordered after his inauguration, according to two people familiar with the review. One of those people said the review had been accelerated to have the options ready for the Trump-Xi summit.
Trump told the FT it was “totally” possible for the US to tackle North Korea without China. Asked if that meant dealing with Pyongyang one on one, he said: “I don’t have to say any more. Totally.”
“What President Trump is trying to do here is to press the Chinese hard by warning them what comes next if they don’t help or join with the US to deal with this problem,” said Dennis Wilder, a former CIA China analyst who later served as the top White House Asia aide to George W Bush.
Barring a pre-emptive strike on North Korea — which the administration will not rule out since all options are on the table — many experts believe the US needs Chinese help as Beijing has the most sway over Pyongyang. But Washington could consider alternatives, ranging from more effective sanctions to various kinds of more controversial covert action.
Ahead of the US-China summit, Trump raised hopes that he would reach some kind of deal with Xi, despite heavy criticism about China’s trade surplus and exchange rate policy. “I have great respect for him. I have great respect for China. I would not be at all surprised if we did something that would be very dramatic and good for both countries and I hope so.”
As a reminder, the topic of North Korea was among the key issues discussed by US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, the, during his first visit to Asia, when he warned that the previous US “policy of strategic patience has ended.”
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And in a separate topic, one just as important for US-China relations, namely trade, Trump told the FT that he will not push the Chinese president and discuss tariffs with Xi at the coming meeting, “maybe the next time we meet.”
Are you going to equalise tariffs?
Trump: I don’t want to talk about tariffs yet, perhaps the next time we meet. So I don’t want to talk about tariffs yet. But you used the word equalise. That is a very good word because they are not equalised. If you used a word other than tariff, it is not an equal. You know when you talk about, when you talk about currency manipulation, when you talk about devaluations, they are world champions. And our country hasn’t had a clue, they haven’t had a clue. The past administration hasn’t had and many administrations — I don’t want to say only Obama; this has gone on for many years — They haven’t had a clue. But I do.