By Katie Bo Williams - 07-06-17 06:00 AM EDT
President Trump is set for a tense meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, following North Korea's successful launch Tuesday of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
The president has grown increasingly frustrated with China, which he says is failing to crack down on Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. He has criticized the country in tweets, while his administration has announced a range of military and financial maneuvers antagonistic toward Beijing.
But so far, pressure on China has appeared to serve only to aggravate tensions between Beijing and the U.S., without shifting China's approach to North Korea.
Tuesday's missile launch raises the stakes for both leaders, neither of whom would benefit from an outright breakdown in relations between China and the U.S.
"Be very clear, a comparatively benign first few months of Trump administration U.S.-China bilateral relations now stand at the beginning of new and much more difficult phase," Ian Bremmer, president of the international consulting firm Eurasia Group, wrote in a dispatch to clients after the missile launch. "And that's likely to become one of the most important geopolitical risks for the global economy going forward."
Trump has linked his frustrations with the U.S.-China trade relationship to his frustration with China's approach to North Korea, asserting that it is China's responsibility to curb the country's accelerating nuclear and missile programs.
"The United States made some of the worst Trade Deals in world history. Why should we continue these deals with countries that do not help us?" Trump tweeted Wednesday morning.
"Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us - but we had to give it a try!" he wrote in a second tweet.
China, which is North Korea's major food and fuel provider, has been wary of taking any action that might destabilize the region, such as imposing tougher sanctions on Pyongyang. The country is also wary of empowering South Korea, a U.S. ally, and fears a refugee crisis if North Korea collapses.
Instead, reflecting a quietly burgeoning alliance, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have called for a mutual freeze on North Korean proliferation efforts and U.S.-South Korea military maneuvers in the area.
Trump on Sunday called Xi and indicated that the U.S. was willing to take unilateral action to counter North Korea, a marked shift from a cordial summit between the two leaders at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in April. After that meeting, Trump praised his Chinese counterpart for his cooperation on the issue.
Since then, Trump has said that leaning on China to counter North Korea "has not worked out," and this week his government took aim with a slate of measures that frustrated Beijing.
The administration approved a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, viewed by China as a breakaway province; sanctioned a Chinese bank accused of funneling illegal North Korean financial activity; and sent a U.S. naval destroyer near a disputed island chain in the South China Sea claimed by China.
Raising the stakes further, the president hinted this week that he might seek tariffs to protect the U.S. steel industry, a move that would hit China particularly hard. Chinese steel currently makes up 26 percent of the U.S. market.
Some policy experts warn that using trade policy as a lever to influence national security issues will serve only to inflame tensions with China without doing anything to denuclearize North Korea.
Christopher Swift, a former official with the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control and a current national security professor at Georgetown University, argued that rather than push China to levy tougher sanctions on Pyongyang, the Trump administration should seek assurances that Beijing is complying with a series of treaties prohibiting it from exporting technology and materials used for ICBMs to North Korea.
"It would be nice if the administration would draw a distinction between the materials that actually support this program and the sort of low-level trading of commodities that occurs between North Korea and China," Swift said.
He noted that many of the key roles at the State Department - individuals who might emphasize that distinction to senior officials and the White House - have yet to be filled.
Others say the U.S. should use its full arsenal of tools to force China to take stronger measures against North Korea.
"I commend the Trump administration for its sanctions last week against entities aiding Pyongyang, including a Chinese financial institution, but this should be only a first step," Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said in a statement Tuesday.
"China can inflict the diplomatic pressure and serious economic damage to North Korea that could move Pyongyang toward peaceful denuclearization and Beijing should do so now. If China fails to act, as it has to date, its relationship with the United States cannot remain the same."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has announced plans to ask the United Nations Security Council to enact stronger sanctions against North Korea and condemned countries that "provide any economic or military benefit" to Pyongyang as "abetting a dangerous regime."
But China hates to be pushed, regional experts note, and it's unclear what kinds of commitments on North Korea Trump will be able to extract from Xi in Hamburg.
Trump in a tweet after the missile launch suggested that China could "put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!"
But the economic relationship between the U.S. and China, no matter how fragile, is advantageous for both countries - and neither leader appears prepared to torpedo the fragile rapport struck at Mar-a-Lago in April.
In a more detailed readout of the Sunday call between Trump and Xi, the Chinese president said that although China-U.S. relations have been "affected by some negative factors," "important results have been achieved in bilateral relations."
Xi called on both sides to "focus on cooperation and control differences in a bid to secure more substantial progress in relations between the two countries." He reported that Trump said that U.S.-China ties "have a promising prospect and the two countries have broad common interests."
Moreover, Swift and others said that that while alarming, Tuesday's launch was not unexpected. It was already "baked in" to security analyses of the region.
Given that - and the complex pressures on both China and the U.S. - Trump's meeting with Xi is unlikely to produce any radical shifts in North Korea policy.
"At this point, it's all posturing and press releases," Swift said.
Jonathan Easley contributed.