A Promising Start

Korea: A Promising Start

President Donald Trump’s foreign policy team deserves credit for its work on China and North Korea.

With hostilities, atrocities and weapons programs escalating around the globe, there was reason for relief when the Obama/Clinton/Kerry chapter in American foreign policy came to an end. But, based on Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, there was also reason to fear that the Trump administration would repeat Obama administration errors. Would they too be generous to dictators and adversaries, and ungenerous to democratic allies? Would they too be soft on Russia, and mostly indifferent to atrocities in Syria and elsewhere? Would they too retreat geopolitically and militarily, thereby creating vacuums that extremist regimes like Iran and terrorist groups like the Islamic State group would fill? Would they too overemphasize the economic side of relations with China, while downplaying North Korea’s egregious human rights violations and exponentially expanding nuclear program?

While it is too early for definitive conclusions, President Trump’s policies are better than skeptics predicted. Collectively, his talented foreign policy team is demonstrating attentiveness to moral, strategic and military threats and willingness to apply moral, strategic and military, as well as economic, pressure to deal with them. From U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s passionate statements against those who commit atrocities and WMD proliferators, to Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ pronouncements on U.S. willingness to use force if necessary against the world’s worst aggressors to National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s calm resolve when talking with or about powers that would do us, our allies or civilians harm, to Trump’s own harnessing of U.S. power and leadership to extract concessions from others, this administration’s foreign policy is off to a promising start. Trump should do more and say more for human rights, but his commitments to democratic allies, recent condemnation of the Assad regime and excellent Holocaust Remembrance Proclamation indicate that, even in that regard, there is promise.

The Trump administration’s posture toward China, and China’s response, can reasonably be described in terms of better policy reaping better rewards. Of course, few analysts describe it that way. Some say Trump went “soft” on China by making a “deal” to overlook China’s currency manipulation in exchange for increased Chinese cooperation on North Korea. Others say Trump’s threat to use force if necessary to stop North Korea’s further development, and potential use, of nuclear weapons is “bombastic” and “bellicose.” Then there are those who attribute China’s concessions only to economic pressure yet also criticize Trump for applying military pressure, saying it could lead to war. But, if we look more closely, we see that there is a strategy, and that it relies on U.S. leverage and deterrent power.

Yes, Trump held cordial and extensive discussions with President Xi at Mar-a-Lago, and “deal making” on currency manipulation played a part. But, the United States initiated a strike on a Syrian airbase in response to an Assad regime chemical weapons attack while President Xi was there. This, in turn, lent credence to multiple statements by Trump administration officials that we would consider “all options,” including force if necessary, to prevent North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons. Clearly trying to reassure Asian allies and caution North Korea and its enablers, the Trump administration has: resisted China’s insistence that we try again to negotiate with North Korea since that approach failed; accelerated missile defense deployment to and conducted prolonged military exercises with South Korea; signaled that existing sanctions on North Korea will be more strictly enforced and new sanctions imposed; stressed that we will not “waver” in our commitment to Japan and South Korea and indicated that it will go ahead with some version of a $1 billion defensive arms sale to Taiwan, which had been approved by the Pentagon and State Department but blocked by President Obama.

Trump intoned on Twitter, “If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them!” Nikki Haley has urged China not to just “tell us” they support pressure on North Korea, but to “prove it.” Vice President Pence said in South Korea that “the era of strategic patience is over” and that he is hopeful China will use its “extraordinary levers” to convince North Korea to abandon its weapons. Mattis’, Tillerson’s and Pence’s separate trips to the region punctuate both the Trump administration’s commitment and its resolve, not just in regard to North Korea’s aggression, but also China’s. China’s geopolitical and military positions have advanced steadily in recent years, as it has engaged in robust military modernization and aggressive “island building.” In his confirmation hearing, Tillerson compared Chinese actions in the South China Sea to Russia’s in Crimea, and suggested that the United States might block Chinese access to its newly constructed, increasingly militarized islands.

China now fears that the United States will become more engaged in the region than it did after the Obama administration declared a “pivot” to Asia in response to Chinese provocations. Still more crucial in China’s calculus, the last thing it wants is for all hell to break loose on the Korean peninsula. China sees North Korea as a buffer between itself and democratic powers and ever-threatening democratic movements. The “fog of war” might upend Chinese gains and provide opportunities for others. The inevitable flood of refugees from North Korea into China would place severe stress not only on the Chinese economy, but also, as North Koreans tell of the horrors they endured, on Chinese-communist propaganda. Thus, the Trump foreign policy team is right to remind China of the weight of American power and influence and of how seriously it takes the North Korean threat.

We shouldn’t place outsized hope in recent Chinese actions, but neither should we discount them, for they are certainly noteworthy, and perhaps remarkable. China has announced that it will no longer import North Korean coal (a move that would further devastate the North Korean economy) and, immediately appeared to make good on the announcement by turning back Chinese trading ships with incoming coal. Editorials in the China-backed Global Times suggest that China might also cut crucial oil exports to North Korea. So too, China has suspended all Air China flights from Beijing to North Korea. After a post-meeting phone call with Trump, President Xi said that China “insists” on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and will “cooperate” with the United States to make that happen. China and South Korea have reportedly reached an agreement to take “strong action” against North Korea if nuclear and ballistic missile testing continues. Moreover, it is significant that China abstained from joining Russia in the U.N. Security Council in condemning the U.S. airstrike in Syria.

There is, of course, much more to be done. If the Trump administration wants China to keep pressuring North Korea, it must keep up the pressure on China. It is already demonstrating much more willingness than the Obama administration to enforce sanctions on North Korea and its enablers, and Tillerson indicated in his press conference on Iran that more penalties, including re-designating North Korea a state sponsor of terror, are being considered. U.S. officials should not shy away from speaking out against the horrific human rights abuses in North Korea and from working behind the scenes to pressure China on human rights as well. The use of leverage must of course be guided by clear goals including the overarching one of avoiding nuclear war; a preemptive strike should be taken only if truly necessary. Although the challenges on the Korean peninsula are urgent and formidable, the Trump foreign policy team deserves credit for rising to the occasion.

This article was originally published at U.S. News & World Report on April 28, 2017. Read the full article here.