When US President Donald Trump had dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time, US Navy ships were pounding Syria with a salvo of 59 cruise missiles.
A few days later, the two signaled an agreement to work together to denuclearize North Korea after a phone call on Tuesday night.
The news comes after a prolonged effort by the Trump administration to establish its willingness to use military force against the Kim regime.
“China insists on realizing the de nuclearization of the peninsula … and is willing to maintain communication and coordination with the American side over the issue on the peninsula,” Xi was quoted as saying by state broadcaster CCTV and other official media outlets after the call.
“Had a very good call last night with the President of China concerning the menace of North Korea,” tweeted Trump, who had previously said that China could end the North Korean crisis easily if they wanted to, but that they have “done little to help.”
China has resisted taking hard action against North Korea in the past since it has a vested interest in preserving the North Korean state, as it acts as a physical and cultural buffer state between China and the western-oriented, democratic South Korea.
But now as the US Navy’s USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group looms just off the Korean peninsula, multilateral talks hold more promise than ever.
Xi’s response signals that he may be willing to go further than before in reeling in the rogue North Korean leader following his meeting with Trump, where Trump reportedly stressed the North Korean issue and suggested the US would unilaterally take care of the Kim regime if necessary.
But according to experts, US military action against North Korea was never likely or plausible — North Korea just has too many guns aimed at South Korea.
“The Chinese are smart enough to think about the various military options, so they probably have concluded that there’s a very low likelihood” the US would strike North Korea, Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider.
“I think it’s almost a universal that with military strikes the downsides are just so great that it’s hard to see them taking place,” said Joel Wit, the founder of 38 North, a website that brings together experts on North Korea told Business Insider.
But the Chinese do seem to have been spooked by the deployment of a high-tech US missile defense battery to South Korea, which reportedly worries them as due to its advanced radar capabilities.
China is responsible for 85% of North Korea’s external trade, and a similar percentage of its energy imports.
While China has signed on to every UN Security Council resolution against North Korea since 2006, “it has of course watered down most if not all of those security council resolutions because it has not wanted to agree to sanctions that might create instability in North Korea,” according to Glaser. “And if it won’t cause instability, it’s probably not likely to be tough enough to cause Kim Jong-un to rethink his strategy and priorities.”
So while China may have been swayed to act against their own interests by the Trump administration’s military posturing, another more credible threat could have moved the needle instead.
“I think that [the Chinese] are quite worried about what Trump might do in the area of trade and economics — that’s really credible,” said Glaser.