North Korea’s latest test of a ballistic missile early Sunday was its first since Donald Trump was sworn in at the White House, and came as the US President welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his golf resort in Florida.
While both leaders roundly rebuked the test, Trump affirmed the US’s support for Japan in a revealing way for observers of the security situation in the Asia-Pacific Region.
“Trump was clearly unprepared in his talking points, making very public statements about responding firmly and being 100 percent beside Japan, but he notably didn’t make any comment about defending South Korea,” observes Ashley Townshend, research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
“[Pyongyang] can see that, although he may have people around him who are reviewing North Korean policy, which is currently happening in the Pentagon under Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, Donald Trump himself is clearly not well versed in these issues.”
With the latest test, Pyongyang has also shown it will not wait until the new US administration better hones its North Korea policy before pressing ahead with a weapons programme that runs contrary to UN resolutions.
“It’s more about putting themselves on the agenda so they remain on the agenda, and to take steps forward in their strategy for over a decade,” says Adam Cathcart, lecturer in Chinese and Korean history at the University of Leeds, who also notes Pyongyang is benefitting from shakier relations between the US and China.
“The more distant the US and China are on other issues – like the South China Sea, the Senkaku Islands disputes, the Diaoyu Islands near Taiwan, trade issues and everything else – the more difficult it is to coordinate on North Korea,” Cathcart observes.
A test for US-China relations
China said it disapproved of the missile test, with foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang saying Beijing would participate in the UN talks with a “responsible and constructive attitude” and stating that “all sides should exercise restraint and jointly maintain regional peace and stability”.
China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner and ally, but Beijing generally plays down criticism that it could do more to rein in its neighbour.
“China is concerned, on the one hand, that North Korean provocations could continue to see the United States ratchet up its presence in South Korea, which would be detrimental, at least in Beijing’s mind, to China’s own security,” says Townshend.
“At the same time, China feels very constrained in its ability to actually clamp down on North Korea-China trade along the border region, because it worried about aspects of internal stability and ultimately about pushing the regime in Pyongyang too hard and triggering a state collapse.”
US-China relations initially took a harsher tone in the weeks following Trump’s election, although it appears the stance could be softening, even if only slightly.
“During his first phone conversation with the Chinese President Xi Jinping last Friday, Trump affirmed that the US will follow the One China policy, so in fact he has backpedalled a little from his tweets as president-elect,” says Mathieu Duchatel, deputy director of the Asia and China Programme of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“The US has also, in the words of the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defence last week, backpedalled a little bit on the South China Sea,” he continues.
“So there is the impression that US-China relations will indeed be tenser in 2017, but compared to two weeks ago, it is pretty clear that the US has backpedalled a little bit from the most provocative propositions of Donald Trump.”