HONG KONG—Is the American president bellicose and bombastic—as he has been called before—or… “off the cuff,” “tacky,” and “emotional”?
That’s how Chinese state media are characterizing the current occupant of the White House in official Xinhua news agency commentary (link in Chinese). In the ever more dramatic showdown with North Korea, Trump has, according to the op-ed writer, been “complaining about the wrong thing,” or barking up the wrong tree. He is acting miffed or peevish, and his actions don’t match his words. In English, another Xinhua article simply states that there is “no room to play with fire” when it comes to the Korean Peninsula issue.
The depiction of Trump stands in marked contrast to the usual composed, robotic, stone-faced statements of political leaders in China, and reactions in the People’s Republic to American messaging have reflected not only concern but a mixture of glee and disappointment. There are those dismayed by the fact that Trump remains in office, while others are blithely content, seeing the handling of North Korea as yet another arena where Beijing is sailing ahead of Washington as a responsible–indeed, the responsible–global leader.
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis insists that diplomatic initiatives to rein in the hermit kingdom are working, but Trump appears to be taking a different stand, as usual, on Twitter: “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.”
Good cop, bad cop? It’s not only Pyongyang that’s kept guessing. But there is an added dimension here that many in the United States may be missing.
In May, Pyongyang actually threatened Beijing, claiming that its “reckless remarks” could lead to “grave” consequences after the Chinese Communist Party publicly criticized the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and, in Pyongyang’s view, tried to shift blame for the growing crisis away from Trump and onto Kim Jong Un. “China should no longer try to test the limits of the DPRK's patience," said the bellicose declaration by North Korea’s official news agency.
In the past, the two nations were allies; now, even though China remains the Kim regime’s top trading partner, at this point geography is the only reason the pair maintain close relations. China does not want a war on its border, and it does not want to see the collapse of the North Korean government, which would push millions of refugees toward its frontier. So the menace posed by the behavior of Kim Jong Un and the achievements of his military scientists is alienating Beijing at a rapid pace.
In fact, on Friday, the Chinese state-run outlet The Global Times published an editorial that left no space for guesswork: “If North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. soil first and the U.S. retaliates, China will stay neutral.”
This could explain Mattis’s uncharacteristic optimism. Diplomatic efforts that sway Beijing to stand down in the event of armed conflict would be in America’s favor, and even open up a channel for cooperation between America and China—but only if the top leaders in both nations can sync up. “Fire and fury” and “locked and loaded” are not the kinds of phrases that help make that happen.
Trump has proven to be easy to skewer in any language, with parodies easily recognizable by his trademark combover and empty ramblings. But jokes aside, reports in Chinese media suggest the country’s ruling body is sick of being the whipping boy in Trump’s self-aggrandizing rhetoric.
In response to the American message that the Chinese Communist Party has not been doing its part to contain the Kim regime, Beijing hit back by declaring that the “‘China responsibility’ theory” must end.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that China was not to blame for escalating tensions in the Korean Peninsula, and that Beijing is not accountable for ongoing friction. Without naming any nation in particular—but still clearly referring to the United States—Geng said that certain individuals have “ulterior motives” and are “trying to shift responsibility.”
If explosive words turn into actual bombs, North Korea has no means to prevent an American surgical strike on its nuclear program (or on Kim Jong Un himself), but it has for years been accumulating an arsenal that could, at a minimum, devastate significant portions of Seoul’s infrastructure and decimate the population of the South Korean capital should the instruction for quick retaliation be uttered by anyone within a dubious chain of command.
The threat is real. On the night of July 28, North Korea fired another missile from its northern province Jagang, a day after the hermit kingdom’s military holiday, the Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War, which commemorates the end of the Korean War that took place from 1950 to 1953. The missile remained in the air for 45 minutes before plummeting into the ocean—specifically, within Japan’s exclusive economic zone—but caused no damage before it went into the water. It was close enough to Japan that those on the western side of Hokkaido could actually watch the weapon as it dived.
A spokesman for a top American general told Reuters that the U.S. and South Korea met to discuss military options shortly after the launch was detected. It was the 14th missile test carried out by Pyongyang this year, and the second intercontinental ballistic missile, named Hwasong-14. The first was launched on July 4.
The North Korean state media outlet, the Korean Central News Agency, has reported that the plan to fire four missiles near Guam—3,000 kilometers from the Korean Peninsula—will be ready within days, and Kim Jong Un will then decide whether to execute the launches.
Trump has called his response to North Korea “a whole new ballgame.” In a rare moment of what may be inadvertent clarity, he is correct. But for now Trump’s game of hardball plays into the hands of Pyongyang.
Beijing learned long ago that the Kim regime does not bow to hard military threats, because its officials know that first-world nations have much more to lose if fighting begins. The American president’s advisors realize this, too, but from a Chinese perspective his own tweets suggest the man yearns for war—at the cost of American and global peace.