April 5, 2017 | Policy Brief

Xi’s Visit is Chance to Deliver Tough Message to China

April 5, 2017 | Policy Brief

Xi’s Visit is Chance to Deliver Tough Message to China

China’s President Xi Jinping will travel to Florida on Thursday and Friday for a summit that President Donald Trump has warned will be “very difficult.” On the agenda are likely to be North Korea, Beijing’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, and Chinese trade restrictions against South Korea over its agreement to deploy a U.S.-built missile-defense system.

Trump said this weekend that he would press China to increase pressure on its ally North Korea, and is prepared to act unilaterally against Beijing if it does not. He has several options to do so, including issuing significant fines against complicit Chinese banks, increasing enforcement of UN sanctions, and ramping up military exercises and deployments to the region. Trump’s warning that the meeting will be “difficult” suggests he is likely to tell Xi that unless Beijing changes its posture, he is ready to take one or more of these steps.

Trump will also probably raise Beijing’s aggressive actions in the East China and South China Seas. Trump confirmed in February during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit that the islands administered by Japan but coveted by China in the East China Sea are covered by the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty. In the South China Sea, Beijing has asserted sovereignty over man-made islands it has created, contrary to the finding of an international tribunal that it had no legal basis to do so. In both seas, the heightened risk of miscalculation could lead to a military conflict between Washington and Beijing.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has suggested China should be prevented, even by force, from accessing the islands, while Secretary of Defense James Mattis has described it as a diplomatic rather than a military dispute. The conflicting, paradoxical signals – saber rattling from America’s top diplomat but diplomacy from its defense secretary – underscore the complexity of responding to China’s maritime provocations.

Since December 2016, Beijing has implemented unofficial trade restrictions on South Korea over its agreement to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missile defense system. Beijing opposes the deployment, aimed at countering North Korea’s ballistic missiles, as it fears the U.S. using it to receive early warning for its own missile strikes. In March, Tillerson called on China to lift the boycott, and Trump will likely raise that issue with Xi as well.

Pyongyang launched a ballistic missile on Wednesday, and it could engage in an additional provocation while the talks are ongoing, as it did with a missile test during Trump’s February summit with Abe. North Korea has likely completed preparations for its sixth nuclear weapon test, or could launch its road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile – either of which would bring the Kim regime closer to the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the U.S.

Treasury last week designated 11 North Koreans and one entity – the Trump administration’s first significant sanctions against the regime. The designations against key financial operatives in Russia, China, Vietnam, and Cuba exposed North Korea’s wide-ranging financial network, thereby undercutting a persistent myth that Pyongyang is being kept out of the international financial system.

Last week’s measures were welcome but incomplete, as third-party facilitators – including those inside China – were not designated. Reuters reported last month that the Trump administration was preparing to act against Chinese companies and banks, but its selective new designations suggest the administration may have sought to avoid angering Xi. Such efforts, however, are doomed to fail, as Beijing has shown it will not reciprocate Washington’s accommodations with renewed efforts to curb North Korea’s sanctions evasion.

A top State Department official last month declared an end to the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” but meetings with Asian leaders like Xi suggest Washington still considers the region key to U.S. security and interests. Xi’s visit is an opportunity to deliver a tough message to China, but Pyongyang will be listening as well.

Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, was an advisor to the U.S. delegation to the Six-Party Talks’ 2005 rounds and spent 17 years in the U.S. government. Follow him on Twitter @_ARuggiero.


China Indo-Pacific North Korea Sanctions and Illicit Finance