Donald Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping is looking like it is beginning to pay some solid dividends.
On Thursday, Trump ordered an attack against the Syrian airfield that originated a chemical weapons attack on a civilian target in Syria. The result was about 20% of Syria’s operational aircraft destroyed and an airfield made useless for air operations.
By launching a carefully calibrated attack, Trump’s national security team sent a strong message that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated while resisting the push of the left to embroil us in that war. The warning that allowed Russian troops to evacuate before the attack was not shared with Moscow via diplomatic channel but it did prevent a needless escalation of tensions with Russia.
The attack took place while Trump was meeting with Xi and dovetailed neatly into the main item on Trump’s agenda: North Korea.
Historically, China has been an unwilling partner in the isolation of North Korea. It wants a friendly state on its border and it doesn’t want chaos. But the DPRK’s actions had raised eyebrows in Beijing as well as Washington. North Korea killed a North Korean exile who was under Chinese protection. They have fired ballistic missiles into the ocean, in the general direction of Japan… when they haven’t blown up on the launchpad. The Trump administration, for its part, seems to have decided that denuclearizing the Korean peninsula is a high priority. You’ll recall that Tillerson’s first major diplomatic mission was to Japan, the ROK and China with the goal of gaining agreement that North Korea needed to be brought to heel.
Shortly after the attack on Syria, on April 7, China ordered all North Korean coal in Chinese ports to be returned to North Korea.
Last Saturday, even as talks were underway with Xi, the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group was diverted from a scheduled series of port calls in Australia to Korean waters.
Today the Chinese abstained from voting against a resolution, vetoed by Russia, that demanded Syrian cooperation with a UN investigation of the chemical attack last week. In the past, China has voted to protect Syria from sanctions.
To top it off the Chinese government issued a warning to the North Koreans that basically says it will not defend the DPRK against a US invasion so long as “The US must not push its forces to the Yalu River.”
Note that the warning says in case of war China will seal its border with the DPRK and two days ago China deployed 150,000 troops to the North Korean border.
There were quid pro quos for this deal. Trump says in a Wall Street Journal interview that one concession to China was agreeing not to charge it with currency manipulation. We don’t know what other trade concessions went China’s way.
Despite the near Arctic atmosphere of Tillerson’s trip to Moscow, Putin changed his mind and met with Tillerson for two hours and the joint statement acknowledged the importance of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. Another benefit of the measured strike in Syria over engaging in a broad attack which could have jeopardized Putin’s ally.
All in all, it looks like Trump’s NSC has forged a solid consensus between State and Defense on how to proceed. Tillerson’s Asia trip seems to have bucked up some skittish allies. China seems willing to stand aside and let North Korea take its lumps if it doesn’t cooperate with bringing its nuclear weapons under international supervision.
What we do know is that if we do end up at war with North Korea, the North Koreans will not have an ally in China. This, by itself, gives a better chance of peacefully resolving the problem with the DPRK than we have had since 1953.