John Pomfret, a former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, is the author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.”
President Trump spoke highly of Chinese President Xi during a press conference at the White House on April 12, but avoided commenting directly on the decision not to label China a currency manipulator. "We're going to see," he said when asked if a deal was struck. (White House)

Something interesting is happening in China and perhaps President Trump deserves some credit.

For the first time, the Chinese government appears to have laid down a bottom-line with North Korea and is threatening Pyongyang with a response of “unprecedented ferocity” if the government of Kim Jong Un goes ahead with a test of either an intercontinental ballistic missile or a nuclear device. North Korea will celebrate the 105th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Kim Il Sung, on Saturday, and some type of military show of force is expected.

In an editorial in the semi-official Global Times on Wednesday, Pyongyang was put on notice that it must rein in its nuclear ambitions, or else China’s oil shipments to North Korea could be “severely limited.” It is extraordinary for China to make this kind of threat. For more than a decade, as part of its strategy to prop up one of its only allies, China refused to allow the U.N. Security Council to even consider cutting oil shipments to North Korea. Beijing’s calculus was that the maintenance of the North Korean regime took precedence over everything. Now Beijing seems to be reconsidering its position.

Perhaps even more significantly, on April 5, the Global Times, which is owned by the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, laid out what it called China’s “bottom line” on the increasingly tense situation on the Korean Peninsula. First, the editorial said “the safety and stability” of China’s northeast must be assured. To that end, the editorial continued, no North Korean nuclear fallout can be allowed to “contaminate” the region. Second, North Korea cannot be allowed to “descend into the kind of turbulence that generates a huge outpouring of refugees,” the editorial said, adding that China will also not allow “a hostile government” in Pyongyang. It concluded by vowing that Beijing would not tolerate a U.S. military push towards the Yalu River.

China has never before listed in such clear, albeit semi-official, terms what it wants for the Korean Peninsula. It’s never before hinted that it would oppose the formation of a government hostile to Beijing’s interests next door. So how is this related to Trump?

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius takes a look at the developing foreign policy of the Trump administration. (Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

In his first meeting with President Barack Obama before taking office, Trump noted that the outgoing president advised him to focus on North Korea. The reason is that in the five years since he’s been at the helm, Kim has accelerated his father’s nuclear and missile program and appears to be rushing to affix a nuclear warhead onto an intercontinental ballistic missile. He’s apparently calculating that once he’s done this, he’ll have ensured the security of his regime.

Once in office, Trump issued a series of tweets demanding that China do more to rein in North Korea. Trump administration sources have also leaked information vowing to punish a panoply of Chinese companies that have facilitated North Korea’s busting of U.N. sanctions. (The Obama administration only sanctioned one of these firms.) Meanwhile, the U.S. military sped up its plans to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system in South Korea, despite China’s intense opposition.

But that wasn’t all. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Asia in March he warned that the United States would consider a preemptive strike on the north if its nuclear program continued unabated. “The policy of strategic patience,” Tillerson announced, “has ended.” Finally, the North Korean bomb was front and center at the summit between Trump and China’s president, Xi Jinping, on April 6 and 7 at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. While eating “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake,” with Xi on the evening of April 6, Trump told the Chinese president that he had ordered U.S. forces to fire missiles at a Syrian air base, following the chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians apparently by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

These events, culminating with Trump’s strike on Syria, appear to have concentrated Chinese minds. The strategy of backing North Korea no matter what is bumping up against the risk of an unpredictable man in the White House.

Following the summit, on Tuesday, Xi called Trump and declared that China wanted to see the crisis on the Korean Peninsula solved peacefully. Chinese news reports portrayed Xi as attempting to manage two unpredictable actors – Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. A day later, the Global Times noted that the attack on Syria made it impossible to dismiss the possibility of a U.S. strike on North Korea. “Trump’s team apparently is determined to solve the North Korean nuclear problem,” the Global Times observed. To show that he’s willing to negotiate, Trump stated that if China plays ball in North Korea, the United States will take into account China’s interests when it comes to U.S.-China trade.

To be sure, other factors are combining to prompt a re-think in Beijing. Indeed, both Global Times editorials spoke about the pressures that “Chinese society” is exerting on Beijing’s policy. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Chinese are fed up with Kim. On the Web, they refer to him as “Kim Fatman the Third.” When they travel to North Korea on weekend trips, they smirk about how it reminds them of the days when China was poor and backward. A recent post on the WeChat social-media site compared North Korea to a “rabid dog,” implying that someone (perhaps even China) should put it down.

Still, the recent pronouncements from Beijing show that Trump’s unpredictability can be an asset in dealing with the Chinese and that his bellicosity can serve a purpose, too. History here can be a guide. In October 2002, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin went to Crawford, Tex., to meet with then-President George W. Bush. North Korea had recently acknowledged that it was building a nuclear bomb. Bush asked Jiang to use his influence to shut the program down, but Jiang demurred, announcing, Bush wrote in his memoirs, that North Korea “was [Bush’s] problem, not his.” In January 2003, Bush tried again. Again Jiang didn’t bite. Then in February, Bush warned that he was contemplating bombing North Korea. That got China’s attention. In August 2003, under pressure from Beijing, North Korea agreed to join China, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia in the six-party talks.

The six-party talks ultimately collapsed, but Bush’s history provides an insight into China’s evolving behavior today. The regime in Beijing responds best to clarity from the United States. As he stumbles toward a China policy, Trump might have hit on a way to deal with Beijing.