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U.S.-China-North Korea Tensions Increase Threat of Global Nuclear War

North Korean soldiers parade in Pyongyang in 2013 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. (Wong Maye-E / AP)

By Mel Gurtov / PeaceVoice

North Korean soldiers parade in Pyongyang in 2013 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. (Wong Maye-E / AP)

It’s not too early to sound alarm bells about the downward turn in United States-China relations. Donald Trump’s evident frustration with China over its presumed failure to rein in North Korea has already led to a number of steps that have rankled Beijing. These include a State Department report on human trafficking that includes sharp criticism of China’s denial of human rights; statements from the administration about China’s unfair trade practices; a major U.S. arms sale to Taiwan; and a U.S. frigate’s sail-by in South China Sea waters close to Chinese-claimed territory.

A phone call on July 3 from Trump to Xi Jinping comforted the Chinese leader on one point: Trump’s pledge to continue to honor the “One China” principle and prior U.S.-China understandings regarding Taiwan. But even on that point, and no doubt with the $1.4 billion arms sale in mind, Xi reportedly said he “hopes the U.S. will properly handle the Taiwan-related issues in accordance with the one-China principle and the three Sino-U.S. joint communiqués.” Xi also said that while U.S.-China relations had “achieved important results” since his meeting with Trump at Mar-a-lago, “at the same time, the two countries’ relations had been influenced by some negative factors.”

On the face of it, the Xi-Trump conversation seems like a positive exchange. But the Chinese account does not mention that Trump, according to a New York Times report on Monday, also warned China that the U.S. may have to take unilateral steps in dealing with North Korea, which has just tested another long-range ballistic (nuclear-weapons-capable) missile. That warning will only accomplish two things: It will tell China that the brief honeymoon in U.S.-China cooperation is over, and will show once again that Washington has failed to learn the lesson of years past that China cannot, and will not, pressure Kim Jong Un to cease nuclear and missile tests and denuclearize.

READ: Russia-China Relationship Is Growing Closer, and That Could Hurt U.S. National Security

Trump has said that Obama’s North Korea policy of “strategic patience” is dead. But Trump’s threat of military action against the North is worse. The Chinese have put forward a “freeze-for-freeze” proposal—a halt to U.S. military exercises on the Korean peninsula in exchange for a halt to North Korean weapons tests—that makes far more sense. Only direct U.S.-North Korea dialogue holds any prospect of reducing the risk of an unprecedented calamitous war.

Mel Gurtov

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