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Mr. Trump Goes to China

North Korea will dominate the conversation between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, in large part because Trump is counting on China to rein in its wayward client state. But he will likely come away disappointed, because China’s leaders will seek to avoid difficult decisions in the short run, even at the cost of damaging outcomes over time.

NEW YORK – US President Donald Trump is spending nearly two weeks in Asia, visiting Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Putting China at the center of the trip makes sense, because it constitutes the most important stop in both strategic and economic terms.

North Korea will dominate much of the conversation when Trump is in China, in large part because he is counting on Chinese leaders to solve the North Korea problem for the United States. This approach is understandable, because the bulk of North Korea’s trade transits Chinese territory, and China could exert enormous pressure on the North if it so chose.

But Trump will likely come away disappointed. China will resist deploying its full leverage, lest it undermine North Korea’s stability and end up worse off as a result. The irony and potential tragedy of China’s position is that allowing North Korea to increase and improve its nuclear and missile arsenals could fuel momentum toward war, or lead South Korea, Japan, or both to reconsider their non-nuclear postures. Any of these outcomes would be inconsistent with Chinese strategic interests; but, like many governments, China’s leaders will seek to avoid difficult decisions in the short run, even if this results in damaging outcomes over time.