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(EDITORIAL from Korea JoongAng Daily on April 10)

All Headlines 07:11 April 10, 2017

Exploratory summit
: China's THAAD behavior to give peek into outcome

Despite the absence of the usual trappings for talks involving big powers, the Mar-a-Lago summit between the United States and China is better seen as exploratory, so its success or failure will be determined by post-summit acts.

For now, U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping went home, calling their meeting a draw. Trump personally informed Xi of the Tomahawk attacks in Syria, showing his willingness to act on his pre-talk threat of dealing with the nuclear-armed North Korea alone, if he has to. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson repeated Trump's threat after the summit that ended without a press conference or joint statement.

From Xi's point of view, it was a relief to be spared embarrassment from his first encounter with the unpredictable Trump. Xi said that he has built trust with Trump, giving his consent to Trump's assertion that the North's missile and nuclear threats are a serious problem. Xi also defused the trade surplus issue, equally as tricky as dealing with the North, by agreeing with Trump on a workable framework.

There are two touchstone tests to come.

The first is about China's future stance on South Korea's decision to bring in the U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile interceptor against the North's missile threats. Trump told acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn that the THAAD issue was raised during the summit. China has been harassing Lotte for providing a deployment site and boycotting Korean cultural and other products, claiming its radar system is aimed at spying deep into its territory. Experts believe China is using the THAAD card to gain leverage over the U.S. in their grand game for regional hegemony. So any letup in China's pressures could be taken as a sign Xi is taking Trump seriously and the two sides can work together on bigger issues.

The second touchstone regards the North's sixth nuclear test. Satellite photos show Pyongyang has prepared for the detonation, which can make for a hydrogen bomb test that would lend credibility to its self-claimed nuclear-state status.

If the North presses ahead, the likelihood is that Trump will put Xi on the spot. This could lead Trump to go for a "secondary boycott" that punishes Chinese firms for transacting with the North, inflaming the two superpowers' trade war.

Although there is a near consensus that the Trump government can't use military options against the North for fear of enormous collateral damage, Trump would be put under pressure to disprove he would be as toothless as his predecessor, Obama, was. Short of preemptive attacks, the U.S. can gather its strategic assets closer to the Korean Peninsula to put the North on the defensive and reduce China's arbitrary right of way. That would mean that their summit was a failure of trust of the two leaders, leading to a dramatic confrontation.
(END)

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