“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right”

North Korea

A man watches a television screen showing U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Seoul, South Korea, 10 August 2017 (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)

By David Schlesinger

Pity China’s foreign policy leaders.

An unpredictable, mercurial, untested, perhaps irrational leader in its neighbor, North Korea.

An unpredictable, mercurial, untested, perhaps irrational leader in its major trading partner and sometime global rival, the United States.

In the words of the 1972 pop song by Stealers Wheel, China must feel like there are:

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.

It is easy to list the things China doesn’t want.

It doesn’t want a nuclear, bellicose North Korea. But it also doesn’t want a North Korea in economic collapse, sending hundreds of thousands of refugees over its border.

It doesn’t want North Korea shooting missiles all over Asia, destabilizing the region China relies on for half its exports and a huge part of its influence.

It doesn’t want the United States starting a dangerous and bloody preemptive strike in its backyard.

It doesn’t want a trade war with the United States.

What does China want? That’s pretty simple to articulate too: It wants a quiet, stable environment that will allow it to get its politics and economy fully under control.

The last thing China needs is a military and trade crisis.

China is about to hold an important once-in-five-years Communist Party Congress that will set the political leadership and tone for years to come. At the same time, it is wrestling with an economy that is slowing down from decades of torrid growth and groaning under a huge load of dangerous debt that fired that growth.

The last thing it needs is a military and trade crisis. But it may not have a choice.

U.S. President Donald Trump started out demanding China use its influence on North Korea and threatening trade retaliation if it didn’t.

China feels it has done what it can. But frankly it wasn’t effective – North Korea continues to do what it wants, regardless of Chinese pressure or American threats.

Despite Beijing’s feeling it has at least tried hard, it now emerges that President Trump not only rejected a trade deal both Chinese negotiators and his own secretary of Commerce thought that they had reached, he also demanded his team provide him with a list of trade sanctions he could slap on Beijing.

None of this will make China’s leaders feel like putting themselves out any more to help the United States defuse the Korean situation. Yet those leaders must also feel extremely nervous that Trump may pour oil on the flames instead of water – absolutely the last thing they want in their neighborhood.

The world may soon have both a military and trade crisis that no one actually wants – no one, that is, except a man who seems to actually thrive on chaos and tumult, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.

Maybe in the midst of tension and danger, he will actually feel like a winner.


David Schlesinger is the Founder and Managing Director of Tripod Advisors, a consultancy that advises on political risk analysis and strategy, and on running complex, dispersed global organizations with an emphasis on China and the media sector. He previously was Reuters’s global editor-in-chief before becoming chairman of Thomson Reuters China, responsible for government relations and businesses in financial markets, legal and regulatory databases, scientific information and journalism.

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