Mr. Trump has sought to leverage trade and North Korea with China for months, initially expressing optimism after hosting Mr. Xi at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, only to later grow discouraged that Beijing was not following through. The effort has now reached a decisive point with the overt threats of American military action against North Korea — warnings clearly meant for Beijing’s ears.
China is widely seen as critical to any resolution to the nuclear crisis because of its outsize role as North Korea’s main economic benefactor. China accounts for as much as 90 percent of North Korea’s total trade and supplies most of its food and energy while serving as the primary purchaser of its minerals, seafood and garments.
But even though the effectiveness of the new United Nations sanctions depends largely on China’s willingness to enforce them, the Trump administration so far has failed to come up with enough incentives to compel China to do so, analysts said.
In their phone conversation on Friday night, Mr. Xi stressed that it was “very important” for the two leaders to maintain contact to find “an appropriate solution to the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula,” according to a statement carried in the Chinese state-run media. The language indicated China wants to push forward with a diplomatic proposal for North Korea that the Trump administration has brushed aside.
The Chinese statement urged the “relevant sides” — a reference to North Korea and the United States — to “avoid words and actions that exacerbate tensions.” It did not explicitly criticize North Korea, which issued its own searing rhetoric all week, including a threat against Guam, and did not draw a clear distinction between Washington and Pyongyang.
In its own account of the call, the White House emphasized points of concurrence. “President Trump and President Xi agreed North Korea must stop its provocative and escalatory behavior,” read a statement from the White House issued early Saturday morning. “The presidents also reiterated their mutual commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
If Mr. Trump was trying to move Mr. Xi toward bolder action against the North, he did so while the Chinese leader is preoccupied with his own domestic political machinations, attending to a once-every-five-year political shake-up in the top ranks of the Communist Party.