President Donald Trump’s 11-day swing through Asia will include meetings to press Chinese leaders to be tougher on North Korea and more pliable on economic issues. But he will skip the Korean Demilitarized Zone to make time for meetings like ones he will have with the strongman leader of the Philippines, with whom aides say he has a “warm rapport.”
China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, told reporters on Monday that his government has been “doing everything we can on the [North] Korean issue,” according to a transcript shared by the White House Correspondents’ Association. But a senior Trump administration official a day later said there is “clearly” more that China could do to change the North’s behavior as its largest trading partner and lone remaining ally.
“The Chinese have done a great deal” in pressuring Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons, “more than, I think, many expected they would do,” the senior official told reporters during a briefing to preview Trump’s trip, which starts Friday.
“The U.S. is working more closely with China on North Korea than ever,” the senior official said. “That said, there is clearly more that China could do that would go beyond the UN Security Council resolutions, given so much of North Korea’s trade flows in and out of China,” the senior official said.
Trump has threatened to “destroy” North Korea if the country does not give up its nuclear weapons program.
The official signaled that the Trump administration has concluded Beijing is not doing all it can to enforce those international measures against the Kim regime, saying “enforcing those resolutions is absolutely crucial.”
Chinese leaders are expected to press Trump on entering into direct talks with Kim’s regime, something in which Trump has made clear he is not interested.
“North Korea has shown zero inclination to engage in substantive talks with anyone on this issues,” the senior official said. “The question is: Why is that the case?”
The president will arrive in Beijing for a state visit on Nov. 8 after a two-day stop in South Korea. While he will be feted by the South’s leaders and have high-level talks about a range of issues, Trump will not visit the Demilitarized Zone, as some past presidents have done.
“There wasn’t enough time,” the senior official said. “It would have been Camp Humphreys or the DMZ.”
The White House noted Tuesday that it has sent Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis to the DMZ in recent months.
“It’s becoming a little bit of a cliche at this point,” the official said.
The U.S. Army base at Humphreys, meanwhile, is crucial to the American military mission on the peninsula. Starting in 2004, all troops under United States Forces Korea and United Nations Command Headquarters were moved to Humphreys. It is the largest U.S. military base in Asia, meaning that, should an armed conflict between the United States and North Korea erupt, the camp would be a key hub of personnel, combat equipment, intelligence systems, logistical support and other items important to the operation.
Because no sitting American president has ever visited the camp, the senior administration official said Trump’s doing so during ongoing tensions will send “a message.”
Once in Beijing, Trump also plans to press China to reverse what the administration sees as a drift away from an “open economy.” That will include a direct message to Chinese President Xi Jinping to end “predatory behaviors” that the official contends hinders trade and stifles economic growth here and in other countries.
That came a day after Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador, signaled his government is in no hurry to make the changes Trump wants, telling reporters trade issues “will have to be done over time” because things like the U.S. trade deficit with China is part of “a structural problem.”
That could create some tensions. That’s because Trump is eager for China and other Asian countries to recognize there is a “difference between actions and words,” the official said, adding: “President Trump wants to see real actions.”
His last stop will be in the Philippines, where he will have one-on-one meetings with President Rodrigo Duterte. The White House earlier this year invited Duterte to the White House, a move that drew widespread criticism from human rights groups and congressional Democrats. Duterte declined the invitation.
The Philippine leader has presided over a government crackdown of drug dealers and users, including extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses.
Still, that did not stop the senior official from saying Trump and Duterte have a “warm rapport” that stems from a phone conversation earlier this year.
In that April 29 call, Trump praised Duterte’s tactics.
“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump said, according to a leaked transcript of the call. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.”