China plays it cool in bid to be seen as Asia’s reliable power

Published: 4:00 AM, August 11, 2017

BEIJING — With America’s Asian allies unnerved by United States President Donald Trump’s threat to bring “fire and fury” to North Korea, China sees a chance to capitalise on the fear and confusion, and emerge as the sober-minded power in the region, according to analysts.

In dealing with new American presidents — there have been eight since Richard Nixon opened relations with the country — China’s leaders have looked for a few important qualities, mainly reliability and credibility.

Even if they had doubts about a president’s affinity for China, if he was deemed reliable, Chinese officials could expect some stability during even the prickliest disagreements.

Mr Trump has increasingly been seen in China as unreliable. His statement this week that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it continues to threaten the US with intercontinental ballistic missiles has only deepened that perception, said analysts.

But rather than make that judgment public, in the state-run news media or in official remarks, China’s leaders are sitting back, content to watch Mr Trump’s credibility falter among American allies and adversaries alike, added the analysts.

“The Chinese don’t like North Korea’s nuclear programme, but the current situation does serve their longer-term interests in eroding American leadership, because it provides a whole new set of circumstances in which America shows its weakness,” said Professor Hugh White, a former senior defence strategist in the Australian government.

Mr Trump’s threat has particularly unsettled America’s main Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, adversaries and neighbours of North Korea that have increasingly vocal lobbies for acquiring their own nuclear weapons to counter Pyongyang’s.

China and Japan are far from being close. But China is trying to improve its relations with South Korea, and it sees opportunity there as Mr Trump threatens pre-emptive action against North Korea, which would be anathema to the liberal government of the South’s President Moon Jae-in.

Attempts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis to calibrate Mr Trump’s comments did not alleviate the credibility problem that China hopes to exploit, said analysts.

Mr Trump’s remark was the starkest example of a recent pattern in Washington, said Prof White. Too often, he said, America has declared it would use force to stop something from happening — such as China’s expansion in the South China Sea — and has failed to do so. “Trump’s antics amplify that message tenfold,” he said.

The official Chinese reaction to Mr Trump’s comments was mild. The Foreign Ministry reiterated standard points about the North Korea dispute: That it should be resolved with diplomacy and that all parties should avoid escalating the situation. The modesty of that response may be due to the fact Chinese leaders are currently more focused on domestic politics than foreign policy, said analysts.

President Xi Jinping and other senior officials are attending an annual retreat at Beidaihe, east of Beijing. Mr Xi is assumed to be finalising the new line-up of China’s top leaders for the next five years, expected to be announced at a national Congress that could be as soon as next month.

Overall, the Chinese leadership — which is accustomed to belligerence from North Korea, its estranged ally — does not believe Mr Trump would actually carry out his threat to strike North Korea, said Ms Yun Sun, a senior associate at the East Asia programme at the Stimson Center.

China has listened to three generations of bluster from the rulers of North Korea, including Mr Kim Jong-un, so grandiose, alarmist language is nothing new to them, she said. And while North Korea and the US are hardly equals, China is likely to similarly dismiss Mr Trump’s “rhetorical war” against the North, said Ms Sun.

Outwardly, at least, Chinese leaders appear to be reacting calmly to Mr Trump’s words because they understand that they need not be taken seriously, said Prof White.

That in itself is a major problem for the US, especially as it competes with China for influence in Asia, he added.

“Trump is making empty threats to North Korea,” said Prof White. “It is credible to say that America will attack North Korea if North Korea actually attacks the US or allies — as Mattis has done. But it is not credible to threaten to attack if North Korea keeps issuing verbal threats towards America.”

Would China benefit if Mr Trump started a war with North Korea? “If the US gets a swift and decisive win, then that’s a big loss for China,” said Prof White. “But if, as is much more likely, it turns into a costly disaster for the US, South Korea and Japan, that might well mark the end of US leadership in Asia.” THE NEW YORK TIMES