China is the key here. It wants, above all, to keep North Korea as a buffer between it and South Korea. It does not want the regime in the north to collapse, sending thousands of refugees its way or uniting the two Koreas — and so talk in Washington of regime change is both counterproductive and just plain dumb. China prefers to live with Kim Jong Un rather than the chaos his collapse would cause in the region.
China also demands respect. This is an ancient and glorious culture that, in the near history, was abused in banana-republic style by the European powers — Britain, above all — and then later by Japan. China suffered the ignominy of having to surrender suzerainty over parts of its own country and then, in 1937, Japan took control of huge areas. Japanese rule was both repressive, barbaric and — not insignificantly — insulting. The Japanese treated the Chinese as sub-humans.
Now China is a major world power with a huge economy. As does Vladimir Putin’s Russia, it seeks to restore the grandeur and respect of yesteryear. Unlike Putin’s Russia, it has the economic and military might to get its way. It has earned respect. It demands it.
And yet President Trump publicity chastises China for not doing enough to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. Whatever China is inclined to do, it will not do it out of public pressure — tweets and statements. It must be persuaded in private. It must act on its own out of its own national interest. Just as important, China is not going to do something just for the sake of pleasing the United States. It knows North Korea is not going to abandon its nuclear program. Kim would be crazy to do so. Libya did it under Moammar Gaddafi, and Gaddafi is no more and neither, in some sense, is Libya. Kim may be odd, but he is not suicidal — and China is not going to set itself up for a public rebuff.
If China is going to tighten its noose around North Korea, it will be because it wants to avoid a war. Therefore, it has to believe that Trump is serious when he rattles his saber. But it’s hard to take Trump seriously about so many things. As China well knows, Trump early on seemed willing to abandon the one-China policy and recognize Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province. Trump backed off that pretty fast when China glowered its disapproval.
Trump labeled China a currency manipulator and all but campaigned against it. He reversed himself on that one, too. In short, Beijing has learned that what Trump tweets in the morning may be reversed or dismissed by afternoon. It’s often hard to know what Trump thinks. Trumps embraces a strategy of keeping adversaries off balance. That might work in real estate, but in power-politics chaos and unpredictability can lead to war. The art of this particular deal is steadfastness.
In many years and more than 50 trips to China, Henry Kissinger learned how much the Chinese crave respect and value patience. In all likelihood, they feel Trump shows little of either. He needs to lay off the tweets and slow down. Lives, not votes or ratings, are at stake.