Did Xi take Trump for a ride?

>> Thursday, June 1, 2017

Perry Diaz   

When President Donald Trump met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at his luxurious resort Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida last April 6, he was hoping that Xi would accept his invitation to stay at the posh resort.  Well, Xi politely declined and instead stayed at a nearby hotel.  But other than that, their summit was deemed a “success.”  Trump got something of geopolitical value that he thought would solve his North Korea dilemma.  And Xi got something of great economic value that he coveted so much.  But how do you measure who got more?  It’s like comparing apples and oranges, right?   
After the recent Trump-Xi summit at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Trump’s hard-line stance against China melted like a marshmallow over a fire.  After two days of negotiations, Trump declared that China was not a “currency manipulator” and decided to maintain the status quo on trade issues.  That’s a 180-degree turnaround from his position during the presidential campaign.  
When Xi went back home, he ordered shipments of coal from North Korea to be turned back.  Trump was ebullient when he got the news.  He said that China took a “big step” in easing tensions between the two countries.  He described his relationship with Xi as one with “good chemistry” and praised Xi for banning North Korean coal.  
But what has that to do with the North Korea “nuclear” problem?  North Korea continues her nuclear program including developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could reach the U.S.  Since the Trump-Xi summit, North Korea had attempted to launch ballistic missiles but failed when the missiles exploded in flight.  The following day that South Korea elected Moon Jae-In as president, North Korea launched another missile test.  It was successful.   This led Moon to comment that war with North Korea was a “high possibility.”   

 “Nuclear card”
Meanwhile, the situation in the South China Sea (SCS) has drastically changed: China put militarization of the region in high gear.  In an attempt to please – or appease – China, Trump isn’t doing anything.  He even turned down three requests from the Pacific Fleet to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) with 12 miles of China’s militarized islands in the Spratlys.  
And in an act of arrogance, China’s ambassador to the U.S. demanded that Trump remove the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris Jr., who has been a strong proponent of FONOP.  But what reportedly irked China was when Harris called China “aggressive,” saying the country does not “seem to respect the international agreements they’ve signed.”  He was referring to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling that rejected China’s “nine-dash line” claim, which covered 80% of the SCS.
Evidently, Xi has put Trump on ice by playing the North Korea “nuclear card.”  In other words, North Korea can now pursue her nuclear program, knowing that Trump wouldn’t do anything to stop her for as long as Xi pursues the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula.  But for North Korea watchers, denuclearization is not going to happen because China wouldn’t allow it to happen.  If China wanted it to happen, she could have done it long time ago. 
Another thing that’s not going to happen is Korean reunification.  If reunification were going to happen, it would be under a democratic government and China wouldn’t allow that to happen.   
Indeed, a divided Korea -- with North Korea possessing nuclear weapons -- would serve as a security buffer between China and the U.S. forces stationed just south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ).  
But if the North Korean communist government collapses and the Korean Peninsula is reunified under the South Korea government, China will lose a strategic advantage over the western part of the Sea of Japan; thus, giving South Korea and Japan full control of the Sea of Japan.  This would allow South Korea and Japan to block the Korea Strait – which connects the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea (ECS) – if hostility with China erupts.
It’s important to note that ECS is a hotly disputed region between China and Japan.  The dispute is about ownership of the Senkaku Islands, a group of eight uninhabited isles and islets administered by Japan but contested by China.  The sea’s strategic value is important to China because it connects to the SCS through the Taiwan Strait.  To the east of the ECS is the Ryukyu archipelago, which is Japanese territory and to the west is China.

Arbitral tribunal
This brings us back to the SCS, which China claims by virtue of the “nine-dash line,” an arbitrary line that demarcates 80% of the South China Sea.  But last July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, Netherlands, issued a ruling in the Republic of the Philippines vs. People’s Republic of China that invalidates the “nine-dash line,” thus rendering China’s claim null and void.  Beijing immediately rejected the PCA’s ruling. 
Meanwhile, the newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who was sworn into office just 12 days prior to the PCA tribunal award, had a different idea.  Instead of pursuing the PCA’s award, he “temporarily” set it aside.  During an event at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery), Duterte told Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jinhua that he does not want to go to war with China.  Duterte then proposed that both the Philippines and China should just have a “soft landing everywhere.”  After Duterte’s decision to set the tribunal award temporarily, China showered the Philippines with financial loans.  

Rude awakening
Last May 15, Duterte met with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the “One Belt, One Road” summit in Beijing.  Duterte told Xi, “We intend to drill oil there, if it’s yours, well, that’s your view, but my view is I can drill the oil, if there is some inside the bowels of the earth, because it is ours.” Xi responded, saying: “Well, if you force this, we’ll be forced to tell you the truth. We will go to war. We will fight you.”  
It must have been a rude awakening for Duterte who had called Xi a “great president.”  “China loves the Philippines and the Filipino people,” Duterte once said of his new friend and idol.  Who would go to war with a friend?  Clearly, things have changed, which begs the question:  Why the direct and undiplomatic verbal assault on Duterte?
Xi knows that Duterte is weak – very weak – who by his own admission said “We cannot stop China from doing its thing.  What do you want me to do? Declare war against China? I can, but we’ll lose all our military and policemen tomorrow!”  If Xi uses Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” tactics, he knows that not only Duterte is weak; U.S. President Donald Trump is weak, too.  
And this raises the question: Would Trump honor the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) if Duterte invoked it? If no, then the Philippines would be helplessly at the mercy of China.   And for as long as Xi keeps promising Trump that he’s working to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, Trump would remain neutral in the territorial disputes in the SCS.   
When Xi warned Duterte, “We will go to war,” he knew exactly what Duterte would do: Withdraw.  And if Duterte has the cojones to proceed drilling for oil, what would Xi do?  Would he ask Trump to rein in Duterte just like when Trump asked Xi to rein in North Korea’s “supreme leader,” Kim Jong-un? 
Indeed, any way it’s played out, Xi wins.  He keeps North Korea nuclear-armed and the South China Sea in his possession.  Which makes one wonder: Did Xi take Trump for a ride when they met at Mar-a-Lago?


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