President Donald Trump, eager to stop rapid advances in North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, is signaling a break with decades of US policy as he looks to coax China into ramping up the pressure on North Korea.
Trump's sweetening the pot, offering China better trade terms if the Asian powerhouse takes steps to put North Korea's provocative behavior to rest. China accounts for 80% of North Korea's foreign trade and has significant political leverage over North Korea.
"We have tremendous trade deficits with everybody, but the big one is with China. ... And I told them, 'You want to make a great deal?' Solve the problem in North Korea. That's worth having deficits. And that's worth having not as good a trade deal as I would normally be able to make," Trump told The Wall Street Journal in an interview last week, a day after he spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping by phone.
The interview was one of several in the last week in which Trump has suggested China could win US concessions on trade in exchange for action on North Korea. The stance is sparking concerns among former officials in successive Democratic and Republican administrations who say Trump appears to be abandoning a pillar of US efforts to urge China's cooperation on North Korea.
But Trump's diplomatic forays so far with Xi -- whom Trump hosted at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida earlier this month -- are bearing tentative signs of progress. China has turned away coal shipments and made more forceful statements in recent weeks in an attempt to cool the ratcheting of tensions in the region.
Still, former White House officials are raising eyebrows at Trump's move and insisting there is a reason why successive Democrat and Republican administrations have kept the issues of trade and North Korea separate in diplomacy with China.
For decades, US officials have made clear to their Chinese counterparts that the US won't barter economic or other foreign policy issues in exchange for support on the North Korean issue -- sending the signal that the US position on the issue was in the interests of global stability. Abandoning that policy, according to officials from President George W. Bush's and President Barack Obama's administrations, risks sending a dangerous message to US allies and adversaries alike and sending the US tumbling down a slippery slope.
By keeping discussions focused squarely on North Korea and shared US and Chinese interests in preventing war on the Korean Peninsula, US officials have also avoided getting dragged into making other concessions -- like recognizing China's territorial claims to Taiwan -- to win China's full support on North Korea.
"We had made a pretty big point of making it clear that we weren't willing to sacrifice our domestic economic interests for the sake of some foreign policy issue," said Michael Froman, the US trade representative under Obama. "We should be careful about 'paying' China -- in terms of standing down on economic issues -- for doing what is in their interest already. Conceivably, they'd prefer not to see instability and military escalation on the Korean Peninsula."
Robert Zoellick, the trade representative and later deputy secretary of state in George W. Bush's administration, agreed, saying he "never conceded a trade point with China to get assistance on a security topic," like North Korea.
That's because doing so risks weakening the US stance on the issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and opens up the US to similar foreign policy gambits from countries around the world seeking a sweeter economic relationship with the US.
"It opens up the thinking in everyone's mind around the world that they can haggle for a better deal and get the US to give up on longstanding positions," said Michael Green, the National Security Council's senior director for Asia in the Bush 43 White House. "That is not going to instill confidence."
Past administrations, though, have failed to stop, let alone slow down, North Korea's nuclear program and ballistic missile developments. So Trump has taken a different tack: seeking to incentivize China into stepping up its role in the North Korean issue as he stressed the urgency of confronting the threat.
"I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the US will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!" Trump tweeted last week.
A senior White House official insisted Trump was not offering a "specific quid pro quo" to the Chinese, but rather signaling to China that cooperation on North Korea would help create a more beneficial US-China relationship.
"What the President is signaling is that Chinese cooperation in dealing with North Korea is extremely important, and if we can't get good cooperation on this urgent security threat, it'll be more difficult to cooperate with China on a host of other areas in our bilateral relationship," the official said. "If they were unwilling to help us with this, it's going to make other aspects of our bilateral relationship potentially more contentious."
It remains unclear whether Trump's comments mesh with the administration's more fleshed-out policy, but they've prompted a sharp response from some former officials.
"Every administration since Nixon has not fallen for this, and it's the kind of ploy that I used to see on sophomore papers on East Asia in college," said Green, the former Bush administration official, who added that the bartering could send shivers up the spines of US allies.
"If you are Japan or Taiwan, you start to wonder if your interests might get traded," he added. "It introduces a level of uncertainty and suggests that there are no principles to US policy."
It remains unclear what Trump would be able to offer China on trade in exchange for more decisive action on North Korea, but experts raised questions about what economic terms the US could offer Beijing in return. The US already faces a multi-billion dollar deficit with China, and the US has struggled for years to create more open market access conditions in China for US companies.
But beyond making economic concessions to China, Trump's offer to barter over the North Korean issue also risks nullifying one of the Washington's biggest pieces of leverage in urging Chinese cooperation: that stopping North Korea's nuclear program is also in China's interest.
China has been less aggressive than the US in seeking to cool down North Korea's aggressive development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. But experts agree that China also wants to prevent North Korea from becoming a full-fledged nuclear power -- and certainly wants to prevent a war on their southern border that could send millions of refugees flooding into China and potentially risk bringing a US military presence to China's borders.
Evan Medeiros, the National Security Council's senior director for Asian affairs under Obama, joined other former officials in questioning Trump's attempt to barter the US-China trading relationship over the North Korean issue.
"You want the Chinese to do the right on North Korea because it genuinely is a threat ... not as a favor," said Medeiros.