The White House is trying to put China at the center of the North Korean nuclear issue. On Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will not be going to Pyongyang after all, citing lack of progress on the denuclearization front. Trump also implied that China, not North Korean intransigence, is to blame, suggesting that Beijing has stopped cooperating in retaliation for mounting U.S. trade pressure. According to the president, Pompeo may visit the Hermit Kingdom “after our Trading relationship with China is resolved.” As we’ve noted, North Korea never pledged to denuclearize on the timeline the White House has touted, and since Singapore, it has bogged down the diplomatic process over largely symbolic issues. Absent a willingness by the U.S. to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program by force, the U.S. doesn’t have a whole lot of leverage to force Pyongyang to capitulate. At most, it can try to use international sanctions pressure, combined with any number of carrots, to try to shape the North’s behavior as a nuclear power. This poses a political problem for the White House. In June, after all, Trump declared that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat. This statement could be considered accurate only in the sense that the North has stopped short of proving that its intercontinental ballistic missiles can reliably hit the U.S. — but the North still could push forward with its long-range missile program, and the White House has never really sought to defend Trump’s triumphant declaration.

It’s notable, then, that Trump appears to be once again pinning the blame on Beijing for the stalled diplomatic process with Pyongyang. Chinese cooperation is certainly key to maximizing sanctions pressure, and Beijing largely followed through with its commitments until earlier this year. But Beijing has always been unwilling to pressure the North to the point that the Kim regime is at risk of collapse and, like most regional powers, has come to terms with the reality that the North is highly unlikely to ever hand over its nukes. Nonetheless, the more the White House can make the North Korean nuclear issue about China, the more it can reduce its political need for quick, tangible concessions from Pyongyang – and the more it can raise pressure on Beijing on trade and other matters that are more strategically important to the U.S. over the long term anyway. And with China, unlike North Korea, the U.S. is not merely spinning its wheels.

  • Two senior Chinese generals were demoted, and another was detained, as part of an anti-graft investigation this week, according to unnamed sources cited by the South China Morning Post. All three generals are believed to have had close ties to disgraced former Central Military Commission vice chairmen and generals Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou – two of the highest-profile figures to be purged in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign during his first term.
  • China removed caps on foreign investment in Chinese banks.
  • Gunther Oettinger, the EU’s budget chief, threatened to slap heavy sanctions on Italy if its new government follows through on a threat to refrain from contributing to the EU budget amid an ongoing spat with Brussels over immigration.
  • U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton reportedly told his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, that the U.S. is prepared to respond with greater military force against Assad than it has in the past if Syrian forces conduct another chemical weapons attack.
  • Bolton also said Washington will not take a position on the proposed territorial swap between Serbia and Kosovo, leaving Germany as the only Western power actively opposing the plan.
  • Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said that he will continue to use the country’s military in the fight against organized crime and that the federal police are not yet ready to replace the armed forces.