Warning the U.S. could act alone, President Donald Trump has vowed to deliver an ultimatum to Chinese leader Xi Jinping to rein in North Korea when the two men come face-to-face for the first time this week. But Trump's early retreat on Taiwan already has chipped away at his standing with Beijing, and another bluff could leave him looking the way he hates most: Weak.
While Trump enters first U.S.-Chinese summit short on foreign policy experience, he may have advantages to help him succeed where past presidents have failed. Trump's candor and unpredictability, combined with his veiled threats of possible sanctions on Chinese banks and even U.S. military action against North Korea, could provide him new leverage with Beijing. But if he's bluffing, and Xi calls him on it, that might prove damaging in future negotiations with China or in building a united front against North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
The two-day meeting at Trump's Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, starts Thursday after yet another North Korean provocation: the latest test-launch of a ballistic missile. Although U.S. officials said the launch was a failure and didn't threaten North America, it underscored North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's intent to advance his weaponry in defiance of international law. The North may also be preparing for another nuclear test.
Trump warned this week, "If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will." He didn't elaborate, but his administration is looking at sanctions against Chinese banks and companies that provide North Korea access to the international financial system, a move strongly backed by Congress. And on a recent trip to Asia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reminded the region that the U.S. also retains the option of pre-emptive military force.
Trump discussed the issue Wednesday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The White House said Trump "made clear that the United States will continue to strengthen its ability to deter and defend itself and its allies with the full range of its military capabilities."
Susan Thornton, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, on Wednesday called North Korea "an urgent and global threat."
And it's no longer one that just affects U.S. allies like South Korea and Japan, and the tens of thousands of American forces stationed in each. North Korea could develop a nuclear-tipped missile that can strike America within a few years. As that danger nears, Trump's diplomacy with Xi will only grow in importance.
Trump "is making it seem like we are prepared to go to war or use military action ... and I don't think that is going to be viable," said Kurt Campbell, top U.S. diplomat for the region during former President Barack Obama's first term. The devastation could be dramatic. South Korea's capital, Seoul, lies within retaliatory range of North Korean artillery and missiles.
"The key about using leverage in negotiation is that you have to be credible," Campbell said. Of Trump's ultimatum, he said, "I think the Chinese are likely to see through this."
In his two-and-a-half-months in office, Trump has backed off on one sensitive issue with China: Taiwan.
As president-elect, Trump said he didn't feel "bound" by existing U.S. policy toward the self-governing island that China considers part of its territory, demanding concessions from Beijing in trade and other areas. Within weeks, Trump reaffirmed Washington's commitment to the 4-decade-old "one China" policy, smoothing the way for a February phone call with Xi.
Asked if Taiwan was up for negotiation, Thornton said Wednesday: "We have basically moved on from there."
North Korea has faced some increased pressure from China, its main military and economic partner.
Beijing has suspended imports of North Korean coal through the end of the year, cutting off a key source of revenue for Pyongyang. The Chinese are reluctant, however, to exert economic pressure that would destabilize its isolated neighbor and fears any effort that might lead to a U.S.-allied unified Korea on its border. It wants the U.S. to negotiate directly with North Korea.
Winston Lord, the U.S. ambassador to China under former President Ronald Reagan and top diplomat to the region under former President Bill Clinton, said he assumes Trump isn't bluffing this time.
"Trump is right that China is a problem on North Korea and has got to do more. He's right to stir their anxieties on what the U.S. might do unilaterally if they don't act," Lord said. But he said Trump's back-pedaling on Taiwan made him look like a "paper tiger."
Dennis Wilder, a China specialist who served under former President George W. Bush and Obama, likened Trump's approach to Obama's before a Xi summit in 2015. Then, the U.S. was threatening sanctions unless China stopped commercial cyberthefts. A bilateral agreement ensued and has had some impact, though the problem persists.
Wilder said past U.S. administrations preferred to be toughest with Beijing behind closed doors — something he said Bush did effectively. But he said Trump's more forceful approach may now be necessary.
"We have been trying the softly-softly approach on the Chinese for years on North Korea," Wilder said. The Chinese have never gone far enough, as a result, to have "a meaningful impact on the situation," he said.
So can Trump succeed where his predecessors have failed?
He faces some disadvantages.
Beijing has highly skilled negotiators and their position on North Korea is deeply entrenched. Trump's administration, by comparison, is thinly staffed and divided on China, Campbell said.
Lord, who participated in historic U.S.-Chinese meetings in the 1970s, said an informal summit with Xi allows for strategy and red lines to be exchanged. But he worried about Trump's knowledge of the issues and ability to negotiate solo.
"I think he may end up being too soft," Lord said.