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Syria, North Korea, and The U.S.-China Summit; By Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami

C3S Article no: 0033/2017

When the Chinese President, Mr. Xi Jinping, and his delegation landed in Florida for a high profile summit with the President of the United States little would they have realized that a different agenda was going to be dominating theme—Syria and the decision of President Donald Trump to unleash Tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian air base that was involved in a cowardly attack on citizens with chemical weapons. Syria is not a formal close ally of China but Beijing’s position on the six year old civil war is much closer to that of Russia, in the United Nations Security Council and beyond.

It is not as if President Trump waited for the arrival of the Chinese delegation to his golf resort to send missiles to Syria; but some observers have made the point that the timing of American strikes sends a message to China as well. That if Beijing did not rope in its client state North Korea, Washington will not hesitate to attack that reclusive state. The point that is forgotten by many in this line of thinking is that unlike in the 1960s, 70s, 80s or even 90s, Beijing’s “hold” on the regime in Pyongyang has steadily been coming down. And with a dictator like Kim Jong Un at the helm of affairs even the toughest of the leadership in Beijing may be hesitant to push the envelope.

If the Trump administration did indeed raise the issue of North Korea at the Mar-A- Lago talks, it would have been to highlight the excessive obsession of the current regime in Pyongyang with nuclear and missile programs, threatening not only Japan and South Korea but even fantasizing sending long range missiles to the United States. The bogey of sanctions is not realistic either.  There are hardly any more sanctions left in the United Nations Security Council’s kitty—China and the rest of the world know this for sure. North Korea, by and large, is one of the most sanctioned countries in the world; is one of the most  poorest countries living to a very large extent on the doles of China by way of food and fuel.

It is a well known fact that China over the years has been using North Korea to further its own designs in East Asia and in the Korean peninsula; and has been instrumental in the nuclear and missile programs of North Korea via another puppet state, Pakistan. But making comparisons between Syria and North Korea can be as dangerous as naïve for the simple reason that the leaderships and styles of decision making are vastly different—Bashir al Assad is not Jim Jong Un and vice versa. North Korea has been, in recent past, upping the ante in the region against South Korea and Japan and few doubt the ability of Kim Jong Un to start a major showdown that will throw the region into utter chaos. And it is highly unlikely that the leadership in Pyongyang would lose sleep over it. How Washington reacts will be secondary.

North Korea will be on Trump’s agenda with China; but that is not going to be the only one. For a person who is keen on putting America back on the trade map, Trump will be eager to make amends on bilateral trade which has been in favor of China in a lop sided fashion over the last several years. Statistics show that in 1986, China’s trade surplus with the U.S. was a mere US$ 1.6 billion; it dramatically rose to US$ 84 billion in 2000; and a whopping US$ 347 billions in 2016. And an argument has been made that between 2001 and 2015 more than three million American jobs have been lost mostly in the manufacturing sector because of the trade deficit with China.

Trump and his Chinese counterpart are said to have discussed this aspect at the summit; but it cannot be addressed in one day over dinner and lunch. Likewise another issue closely related to trade imbalance is that of currency manipulation that Washington accuses Beijing of, the argument being that the value of Yuan must be determined by the market forces rather than any artificial fixing by the government. This issue again would take time to resolve.

Syria may have over shadowed the Trump-Xi summit but it cannot be exaggerated. In fact prior to the arrival of the Chinese delegation and before the strikes on Syria there was some unease as to why the Chinese President was not accorded a White House welcome instead of Florida. The fact of the matter is that some Presidents have preferred to receive leaders at their personal homes as a way of showing more intimacy and friendship. For example President George W Bush used to have leaders at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

In the end the bottom line has always been that fine mix of substance and atmospherics. It does not really matter whether it is the White House or Mar-A-Lago.  Both Washington and Beijing realize that in the pursuit of their own national and global interests, the two sides are not going to be seeing eye-to-eye on many issues. American interests in the Asia Pacific are not always in sync with that of China be it with respect to South Korea, Taiwan, Japan or the South China Seas. But it is again in the two countries’ interest to see that any single agenda like North Korea does not upset the overall parameters of the bilateral relationship. For all that rhetoric during the U.S. Presidential campaign and in the run-up to the Florida summit, the net outcome cannot be seen negatively.

( Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami, former senior journalist with The Hindu and The Press Trust of India in Washington between 1995 and 2008, the author currently Heads the Dept. of Journalism and Mass Communication of the Faculty of Science and Humanities, SRM University, Chennai. Views are personal.)

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