President Donald Trump is taking a harder line toward China by the day.
The latest sign came Wednesday, just days after North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile believed to be capable of reaching Alaska. Trump took to Twitter to slam China for its close economic relationship with North Korea — and suggested that he had given up on partnering with Beijing to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us - but we had to give it a try!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2017
Trump’s statistic is accurate — China has released data showing that its trade with North Korea increased 37.4 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period in 2016. Moreover, he’s rightly highlighting that part of the North Korean regime’s political stability at home comes from its longstanding trade relations with China, which give the isolated country vital resources and much-needed foreign currency.
But the timing of Trump’s complaint about China’s trade with North Korea is peculiar when you consider that the data came out just days after Trump’s Mar-a-Lago summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April.
That matters for two reasons. First, the trade in question took place before Trump and Xi’s heart-to-heart on the urgency of the North Korea problem. It would be more appropriate to look at second-quarter statistics because they’d reflect any post-summit attempts by China to slow the flow of trade with Pyongyang.
Secondly, the administration has obviously known about this for a great deal of time, and earlier showed signs that it was willing to look at China’s trading practices with some nuance. For example, in April Trump praised China for suspending coal imports from North Korea in accordance with United Nations-mandated caps.
But patience in the White House has worn thin quickly — and it’s already resulting in action.
Last week, the White House unveiled sanctions against a Chinese bank, a Chinese company, and two Chinese individuals for doing business with North Korea. It was both a move that signaled impatience with Beijing’s reluctance to take harsher economic measures against it and also a bid to directly discourage the formation of front companies in China that help North Korea access the world’s financial system.
The same day, the White House notified Congress that it was approving a $1.4 billion arms package to Taiwan. China considers Taiwan a renegade province and saw the sale as an attempt to undermine its power over the democratic island nation — and the stability of US-Chinese relations.
"US arms sales to Taiwan and the sanctions against Chinese enterprises have damaged the basis and mutual trust between the two countries, it also contradicts the spirit and consensus of the two leaders' meeting in Mar-a-Lago," China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, said on Thursday.
Trump’s tweets capture his evolution on China and North Korea
This is a pretty strong pivot. And if you look at earlier Trump tweets you can see that he was far more sympathetic to China’s efforts to rein in North Korea not too long ago. In April he said North Korea “disrespected the wishes of China” with its missile testing.
North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 28, 2017
In late May, he said China was “trying hard!” to bring North Korea to heel.
North Korea has shown great disrespect for their neighbor, China, by shooting off yet another ballistic missile...but China is trying hard!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 29, 2017
But by late June, Trump seemed to have given up. In a rather amicable way, he said that he knew China had “tried” but that “it has not worked out.”
While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 20, 2017
His tweet Wednesday moves the dial even further. He doesn’t only reiterate that he’s giving up on China as a partner, but condemns it for its long-established trade relations with the country. He paints China as part of the problem.
With Trump’s increasingly heated rhetoric, sanctions, and the arms sale to Taiwan, the White House’s softer approach to China may be coming to an end, at least for now. The administration wants Beijing to do more, and is signaling a potential willingness to play hardball to get China in the game. Now the question is what — if anything — China will be willing to do in response.