US-China relations: Waiting for the other shoe to drop
It was good while it lasted, although it did not last very long. This is perhaps the fairest thing one can say about the short-lived harmony in relations between the United States and China since the beginning of the presidency of Donald Trump.
After immediately raising the specter of a frontal clash with Beijing over Taiwan, trade and the South China Sea upon entering the White House, Trump made a 180-degree turn after an April summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida. Apparently convinced that he could outsource his North Korean problem to China, Trump not only softened his anti-China rhetoric, but also reversed some of his key positions. For instance, he did not label China a "currency manipulator" in mid-April despite an earlier pledge to do so. The Pentagon also suspended "freedom of navigation operations" (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, out of concern that such actions could upset Beijing.
To seasoned watchers of U.S.-China relations, Trump's strategy of relying almost exclusively on Xi to constrain Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator hell-bent on acquiring nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles, was pure wishful thinking. Chinese interests differ fundamentally from those of the United States. Beijing wants to maintain North Korea as a strategic buffer against the U.S. at any cost because it regards the U.S. as a far greater threat to Chinese security than North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. To be sure, China would take some measures to moderate North Korea's behavior, but it will simply not contemplate drastic actions, such as cutting off oil supplies and trade, that might endanger the very existence of the Kim dynasty.
If Pyongyang were to be forced to curtail or suspend its nuclear and missile programs, China would have to threaten the most severe forms of sanctions. Three months after the Xi-Trump summit, it is clear that Beijing is unwilling to go down that path.