Two key tasks lie ahead after Trump-Xi meeting

One is managing the North Korea threat, the other China's non-compliance with trade rules

At their recent first summit meeting, United States President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping discussed a host of issues ranging from trade, North Korea and the East and South China Sea to human rights, law enforcement and cyber security. Among these, North Korea and trade appear to have stood out.

The two leaders agreed that the threat of North Korea's nuclear and missile development has reached a serious stage, but differed on how to manage the threat. President Xi apparently reiterated a "double suspension" proposal that was rolled out earlier by his Foreign Minister Wang Yi - that North Korea suspend its nuclear and missile programmes in exchange for the suspension of major military exercises by the United States and South Korea.

The United States and South Korea made the right decision to jointly refuse this proposal at the United Nations before the summit. Any verification, as well as agreeing on the terms of inspection procedures for North Korean suspension, would be infeasibly difficult, and restraining legitimate US-Republic of Korea joint military exercises would expose the region to an increasingly belligerent North Korea which could still engage in military provocations.

The Trump administration seems to have decided to increase pressure on China by devising plans for US action against North Korea. The intention is to compel China to pressure North Korea more by taking the approach of "either China delivers results or else the US will act".

Some commentaries on US cruise missile attacks on the Syrian air force base said that the attacks may have sent a message to North Korea and China, but it is doubtful that this would have any meaningful effect on Chinese policy towards North Korea. This is because China understands that the threshold for even a surgical strike on North Korea is much higher compared to the Syrian case - the former's retaliatory capabilities are much higher than the latter. The Trump administration decided to send a carrier strike group to waters near North Korea, which is reassuring to US allies, but it is unlikely to alter Chinese policy towards North Korea.

In order to make the option of US action credible, South Korea and Japan - the two US allies that would face the consequences of any US action against North Korea - would have to bolster their capabilities to defend against North Korean retaliation.

Thaad (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) deployment in South Korea would have to move forward in the face of Chinese opposition, and Japan would also have to enhance its capabilities to defend itself. Instituting robust and thorough defensive systems in a trilateral defence cooperation framework is the best way to make any US option credible, and thereby compel China to exert more pressure on North Korea, and also prepare for any surprise attack by North Korea.

Sanctions on Chinese companies that violate North Korea-related United Nations sanction resolutions should not be a problem for China if it is going to fully implement measures that are contained in the various UN resolutions. But China needs to understand that complying with UN resolutions is not enough to ensure peace in North-east Asia - North Korea must be brought to stop its nuclear and missile programmes unconditionally, and only then can a diplomatic process for eventual dismantlement of stockpiles and facilities follow.

Armed conflict should be avoided, but North-east Asia has reached a point where regional states have no choice but to take all steps to defend against a potentially nuclear-capable rogue state.


In the area of trade, the US and China agreed to come up with a 100-day plan to tackle trade issues. It remains to be seen how the plan would be negotiated, but the goal should be about compelling China to not merely expand imports from the US, but also to redress its problematic economic practices.

In this regard, the Trump administration should coordinate with other major economies, like Japan and the European Union, with regard to international trade litigation for cases of Chinese non-compliance with established trade rules. US-China bilateral economic negotiations would probably prove very tough, but both sides should always keep in mind that a US-China trade war would have an extremely grave consequence for the global economy and defeat the whole purpose of revitalising the economy at home.

Establishing a US-China Comprehensive Dialogue was a positive development. However, the Trump administration should be careful not to allow the four dialogues - diplomatic and security dialogue, comprehensive economic dialogue, law enforcement and cyber-security dialogue, and the social and culture issues dialogue - to turn into "talk shops" where outstanding issues are deferred to the next meeting without producing concrete results.

As the diplomatic and security dialogue will involve issues affecting US allies, the Comprehensive Dialogue with China should be preceded by high-level strategic dialogues with key US allies to coordinate positions on issues like North Korea and the East and South China Seas.

•The writer is a professor at Hosei University, Japan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2017, with the headline 'Two key tasks lie ahead after Trump-Xi meeting'. Subscribe