BEIJING – In a diplomatic gamble, President Donald Trump is seeking to enlist China as a peacemaker in the bristling nuclear-edged dispute with North Korea at the very moment he plans to ratchet up conflict with Beijing over trade issues that have animated his political rise.
Trump spoke late Friday with his counterpart, President Xi Jinping of China, to press the Chinese to do more to rein in North Korea as it races toward development of long-range nuclear weapons that could reach the United States. Xi sought to lower the temperature after Trump’s vow to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea, urging restraint.
But the conversation came as Trump’s administration was preparing new trade action against China that could inflame the relationship. Trump plans to return to Washington on Monday to sign a memo determining whether China should be investigated for intellectual property violations, accusing Beijing of failing to curb the theft of trade secrets and rampant piracy and counterfeiting.
The White House had planned to take action on intellectual property earlier but held off as it successfully lobbied China to vote at the United Nations Security Council for additional sanctions on North Korea a week ago. Even now, the extra step of determining whether to start the investigation is less than trade hawks might have wanted, but softens the blow to China and gives Trump a cudgel to hold over it if he does not get the cooperation he wants.
While past presidents have tried at least ostensibly to keep security and economic issues on separate tracks in their dealings with China, Trump has explicitly linked the two, suggesting he would back off from a trade war against Beijing if it does more to pressure North Korea. “If China helps us, I feel a lot differently toward trade,” he said Thursday.
Trump has sought to leverage trade and North Korea with China for months, initially expressing optimism after hosting Xi at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, only to later grow discouraged that Beijing was not following through. The effort has reached a decisive point with the overt threats of U.S. military action against North Korea — warnings clearly meant for Beijing’s ears.
China is widely seen as critical to any resolution to the crisis because it accounts for as much as 90 percent of North Korea’s total trade and supplies most of its food and energy while serving as the primary purchaser of its minerals, seafood and garments.
But even though the effectiveness of the new U.N. sanctions depends largely on China’s willingness to enforce them, the Trump administration has failed to come up with enough incentives to compel China to do so, analysts said.
In their phone conversation Friday night, Xi stressed that it was “very important” for the two leaders to maintain contact to find “an appropriate solution to the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula,” according to a statement carried in the Chinese state-run media.
China’s leadership has been vexed that the Trump administration has paid scant attention to China’s proposal for a “freeze for freeze” solution to North Korea. The notion calls for North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program at current levels in exchange for the U.S. drawing down military exercises off the Korean Peninsula.
So far, the United States has dismissed the proposal. Instead, to China’s irritation, the U.S. is looking to increase missile defenses in South Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tried to please Beijing by pledging that Washington does not seek to overthrow the North Korean leader and does not plan to send U.S. troops north of the 38th parallel that divides North and South Korea.
Xi is said to be exasperated with Kim Jong Un, whom he openly disparaged during his meetings in Florida in April with Trump, U.S. officials say. But China still prefers to have what it considers a relatively stable North Korea under Kim rather than a collapsed state that could result in a united Korean Peninsula on its border, with U.S. troops in control.