Donald Trump calls Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe as North Asia tensions rise over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions

In phone calls with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, US President Donald Trump raised the growing threat posed by North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programme.
In phone calls with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, US President Donald Trump raised the growing threat posed by North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programme. PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - North Korea's nuclear ambitions dominated phone calls between US President Donald Trump and the leaders of China and Japan on Sunday (July 2).

The calls came as Mr Trump's tougher stance on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and pressure on nations in North Asia over trade spark renewed tensions.

The separate chats with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe preceded Mr Trump's expected meetings with the leaders of Asia's two biggest economies at the Group of 20 nations summit in Germany this week.

In the phone call with Mr Xi, Mr Trump raised the growing threat posed by North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programme. The US President and Mr Xi reaffirmed their commitment to a denuclearised Korean peninsular, the White House said.

On Sunday, Mr Trump and Mr Abe also confirmed in phone talks that they would step up pressure on North Korea in cooperation with South Korea, a Japanese government spokesman said on Monday (July 3).

 

The calls came against the backdrop of a freshly strident tone from the Trump administration about China's need to rein in Pyongyang, and on Japan and South Korea over trade imbalances with America.

 

"The recent actions show Trump is not happy with China and other Asian countries," said Dr Song Guoyou, an international relations professor at Fudan University in Shanghai. "The businessman wants better deals. Now everyone just has to return to the negotiating table."

 

In his call with Mr Xi, Mr Trump also repeated his desire for more balanced ties with America's trading partners, according to a White House statement.

After Mr Trump enlisted Mr Xi's help in April to press Mr Kim to curtail his nuclear weapons and missile programmes, the US president dialled back his public criticisms of China. But the tone has changed in the past few weeks: Mr Trump now says China is not doing enough to help on North Korea and the US slapped sanctions on Chinese companies for doing business with the isolated regime.

The biggest danger if Mr Trump runs out of patience with China is that his threats to take unilateral action against North Korea escalate.

North Asian nations have warned that a military strike on the regime could be disastrous for the region, given Mr Kim's ability to hit Japan and South Korea with missiles.

"Right now, US-China relations are not as good as China thinks they are, nor as bad as they could be with a president as volatile as Trump," said Ms Susan Shirk, a former deputy assistant Secretary of State for East Asia.

"The common threat of a nuclear North Korea has brought the two leaders together, but the honeymoon period is likely to be short as it becomes clear that the Chinese government doesn't want to cut off Kim Jong Un."

Mr Trump has also adopted a more strident tone on trade. In his first meeting last week with new South Korean President Moon Jae In, he demanded a "fair shake" for US automakers in the country and called for a halt to exports of "dumped steel".

Meanwhile, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, in a meeting with Japanese Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko, stressed concern over a decades-long trade deficit with Japan.

MS Shirk and other analysts said the best way for leaders to manage their ties with Mr Trump is to provide him with small "gifts" that enable him to claim victories that appeal to his domestic audience.

Mr Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, said there was some fear before Mr Moon's meeting with Mr Trump that the US President would threaten to walk away from the US-South Korea free trade agreement.

"Instead, all they talked about was correcting a few 'unfair' practices at the margins," Mr Cossa said. "I did not hear any reference to 'renegotiate' or 'scrap' the agreement, but only to small potential side deals that would allow Trump to declare a 'win' without undoing an important agreement that has benefited both sides."

So far, the attacks on South Korea over trade have been harsher than on Japan. But Trump has singled out Japan before: When he pulled the US out of a Pacific trade pact in January he criticised Japan for failing to buy American-made vehicles.

The US' trade shortfall with Japan was nearly US$69 billion last year (2016), more than double the US$27.6 billion deficit with South Korea, according to US Census Bureau data.

Mr Abe responded by launching a charm offensive with Mr Trump, spending five hours on the golf course with him during a two-day visit to the US in February. But their relationship could be tested if Mr Trump attacks the country over trade or the weakness of the yen against the dollar.

Mr Cossa said that "flattery goes a long way" in dealing with Mr Trump."Contrast the way our Asian friends and allies, especially Prime Minister Abe but also President Xi and now Moon, have approached Trump with the way many European leaders have approached him," he said. "Moon expertly set the stage for the meeting by stressing all the areas of agreement with Trump and using Trump's words to make his own points."