Drama in the Pacific

The rivalry between the U.S. and China in the Pacific, while still cold, is increasing in intensity and marked by sudden shifts of balance.

Only days after Trump reached out to Thailand and the Philippines, Ankit Panda of the The Diplomat notes yet another swerve. He tweets:

[I]ncreasingly hard to avoid [the] conclusion that Trump is appeasing China in #SouthChinaSea for cooperation on #NorthKorea.

He quotes a New York Times article, which reports Trump has gone on the defensive in the South China Sea in order to push north against Pyongyang:

More than 100 days into the Trump presidency, no American Navy ship has gone within 12 miles of any of the disputed islands in the South China Sea, Defense Department officials said.

The decision not to challenge China’s territorial claims represents a remarkable deference toward Beijing from an administration that is increasingly turning toward President Xi Jinping for help amid the escalating crisis in the Korean Peninsula. ...

The simmering crisis in North Korea seems to have changed the Trump administration’s earlier assumptions on how to handle China. Mr. Trump campaigned on being tough on Beijing, promising that he would label China a currency manipulator and would go after Beijing on trade.

But with North Korea escalating its provocative behavior the past three months, attempting nine missile launches on six occasions since Mr. Trump came to power, his administration has adopted a more conciliatory air with Beijing as the president seeks help to rein in Pyongyang.

The rhetoric of conflict was amped up by reports Beijing warned its citizens to leave North Korea "over fears that tensions between Pyongyang and Washington DC could escalate":

The Korea Times reports that the Chinese embassy in North Korea began advising Korean-Chinese residents to return to China last month, over fears the country’s military provocations could lead to retaliation from the US.

According to Radio Free Asia, a US-based radio station that broadcasts to Asian countries, the embassy began sending the message to citizens ahead of the 85th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army last month.

How much of this represents Chinese political pressure on Kim is hard to say, but a recent AFP article quoted a Shanghai academic who openly questioned the relevance of Beijing's military pacts with North Korea. The attempt to bring Kim to the bargaining table appears to be shifting to high gear, with at least a little help from China.

In seeming response to Trump's démarche, Reuters reports that Pyongyang is turning to Russia for support:

Some academics who study North Korea argue Kim could be looking for Russia to ease any pain if China, which accounts for about 90 percent of North Korea's trade, steps up sanctions against the isolated country as part of moves to deter its nuclear and missile programs.