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The world according to China: Obama and Xi Jinping’s latest phone call

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com

China’s President Xi Jinping makes a careful distinction between U.S. President Obama and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It’s OK to talk to the former, just not the latter. And so Xi and Obama got on the phone earlier this week to talk about the world.

But China still isn’t happy about what the Chinese see as the U.S. mixing it up where it has no business — in the South China Sea.

ChinaUS-300x217If Xi and Obama see eye to eye on anything, it’s that North Korean nukes are not good and the North should cease and desist from making them, much less exploding them. But how concerned, though really, is China about North Korea’s nukes?

The Chinese no doubt would like North Korea to toe the line on trade and investment but don’t seem to be going beyond ritual tut-tutting on the nuclear issue.

Obama would also like Xi to agree that Iran shouldn’t go nuclear either, but whether they really are together on that one isn’t altogether clear. Obama may not really be all that worried about a nuclear Iran, and certainly China has shown where it stands by staying away from the nuclear issue officially while building up a relationship based on oil and arms.

What’s most compelling about China’s relations with the U.S. and Japan is China’s desire to split the U.S.-Japanese alliance, and the U.S.-Korea alliance too, while increasing its own writ over the region.

Under the circumstances, Obama seems almost like a supplicant by talking on the phone to Xi after a “dialogue” in Beijing between some of their top emissaries.

Would China please do a little more to get the North Koreans to stop the nonsense — and would China also please side with everyone else on the evils of a nuclear Iran? How much China is doing about North Korea is not at all clear either.

Nor is it clear what North Korea’s “supreme leader” Kim Jong-Un is thinking when he’s reported to have gone on enthusiastically about preparing to fight the North’s enemies as North Korean gunners demonstrate their prowess by firing scores of artillery rounds. Is he simply defying China, the U.S. and everyone else or is North Korea serious about countering those who would “stifle” its ambitions?

What is clear is that Xi won’t talk to Abe at all. Chinese officials heaped scorn on Abe’s expression of a desire to meet Xi after Xi had come to Seoul for the summit with President Park Geun-Hye. Instead the Chinese scolded Abe for Japan’s refusal to back down on its control of the Senkaku Islands — Diaoyu to the Chinese.

It’s true, a meeting between Xi and Abe could turn into an exercise in futility. For sure China and Japan aren’t going to agree on the Senkakus. One can imagine Abe nodding politely in the face of Xi’s demands, promising to consider all that he said, expressing hopes for future relations, all meaningless words.

What’s a little frustrating in considering the impasse in Japan’s position is how easy it would seem for the Japanese to make a few cosmetic changes. How difficult would it be, really, for Abe and his ministers to foreswear visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, honoring Japanese war dead, including the war criminals responsible for so much suffering in China and Korea?

The Japanese would say it’s their shrine, on Japanese soil, honoring several million Japanese who died in wars throughout their history, but they can’t get away from the charge that they’re also honoring those who terrorized the region. Visits to the shrine revive hideous memories — and fears the Japanese would do it all over again in some new conflagration if given the chance.

China isn’t allaying fears either. Xi has been known to say a war with the U.S. would be terrible while also suggesting China and the U.S. have separate stakes in the Pacific. That is, U.S. gets the eastern half, maybe from Hawaii and Alaska to the mainland U.S. west coast, while China gets the western half.

And for good measure the Chinese, reinforcing their claim to the South China Sea, are saying the U.S. should mind its own business and stop worrying about other countries with which the Chinese are negotiating the issue. One of those countries is the Philippines, with which the U.S. also has a longstanding alliance. Another is Vietnam, which sees the U.S. as a powerful counterforce to Chinese claims.

It’s on the Korean Peninsula, though, that tensions, and conflicting aims, are the highest. There’s no way to be sure how much pressure China is exerting on North Korea to slow down, if not abandon, its nuclear and missile programs, and to stop threatening a second Korean War.

We can be fairly sure, though, that China would like to break up the network of U.S. alliances from Northeast to Southeast Asia. The test would come if the Chinese ever do try to take over the Senkakus and the U.S. has to decide swiftly to side with its Japanese ally.

As for Iran, why should China discourage the Iranian regime from going ahead on its nuclear program? China has sided with Iran in its friendship with Assad in Syria against assorted rebel groups. Iran and North Korea have exchanged nuclear technology. China may see its best interests in getting along with Tehran — another way to shrug off Obama’s pleas and expose U.S. weakness.

Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering the confrontation of forces in Asia for years. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com

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