Donald Trump’s tweet on Monday morning brought an abrupt end to his nuanced, deep attempt to alter the United States’ relationship with China.
This admission of failure had to sting. After all, Trump dragged Chinese President Xi Jinping down to Mar-a-lago, showed him the golf course, and attacked Syria while providing Xi with what has become the world’s most famous slice of cake.
TRUMP: I was sitting at the table. We had finished dinner. We’re now having dessert. And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen and President Xi was enjoying it.
It was a display Trump has confidently predicted would alter the geopolitics of Korea. And yet, over the weekend North Korea test-fired their first ICBM while Kim Jong-un provided a special message.
After personally overseeing the launch of the Hwasong-14 missile, KCNA reported, “he said American bastards would be not very happy with this gift sent on the July 4 anniversary”. Breaking into peals of laughter, it said, he “added that we should send them gifts once in a while to help break their boredom”.
Over that beautiful cake, Trump threw 59 Tomahawk missiles into Syria. A decision that, three months later, has changed course of the war there not a single inch. While Trump was becoming president by blowing hell out of an airfield that was back in business in a matter of hours, President Xi responded by giving Trump a ten minute lecture on the history of the relationship between China and North Korea.
From that moment, Trump began to crow about the personal bond he had formed with Xi. The man had seen his golf course. He had eaten the cake. They were practically blood brothers. Trump backed off much of the hard line he’d adopted toward China during the campaign, ready to rely on his new best bud and their “warm” relationship.
Trump was so certain of his confection-fueled bromance with Xi that he’s bragged about it for months.
‘The relationship developed by President Xi and myself I think is outstanding. We look forward to meeting together many times in the future,’ Trump said in front of the cameras on Friday morning,
That “outstanding relationship” has kept Trump talking about Xi every time Kim Jong Un ratcheted up tension on the Korean peninsula. Even over the last weekend, as North Korea announced they had test fired their first ICBM, Trump was still counting on Xi to do … something.
Or … perhaps not. What the encounter in Mar-a-lago really proved was something everyone already knew—Donald Trump can’t pay attention for ten minutes. If President Xi did in fact give Trump a history less on North Korea, apparently none of it sunk in.
While North Korea remains a fossilized reminder of a bygone era, China has been completely transformed. Whatever China is these days its plainly not a communist state, much less a revolutionary one of the sort it was during the Cold War. The question is why, when North Korea has become such an unpredictable actor and seemingly impervious even to Chinese influence, does China continue to give it support, even if it is increasingly grudging?
One reason is that any sudden collapse of the North Korea would in itself have destabilizing and unpredictable consequences. It might trigger a flood of unwanted refugees into China. Even more importantly, perhaps, it could fundamentally transform the existing balance of power in northeast Asia.
Trump doesn’t like Mexico, but he certainly wouldn’t want to take steps to turn it into another Somali on the United States’ doorstep. Or at least, not until he finishes his shiny solar-powered wall. Likewise, China is less than anxious to deal with 25 million refugees, a failed state next door, and a whole region in chaos.
But somehow, Trump seem to believe that, haven eaten his cake, Xi would put aside those concerns and starve its neighbor into doing what Trump wanted. In June, Trump began to express some frustration with Xi for not ending this thing already.
Trump has become increasingly frustrated with China’s inability to rein in North Korea, and the reference to trade was an indication the one-time New York businessman may be ready to return to his tougher-talking ways on business with Beijing after holding back in hopes it would put more pressure on Pyongyang.
Without China’s aid, the Untied States and South Korea responded to the North Korean launch by firing some of their own missiles from a beach in a demonstration of their ability to precisely target an objective. As long as both sides are content to beat up on stretches of empty sea, the mutual missile exchange doesn’t really mean much. But the temptation to up the ante considerably by turning one of those missiles toward a more substantial target, leaves the situation in Korea a long way from beautiful.