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China hands Trump a win on North Korea crisis

  • In a matter of a days, tensions with North Korea appear to have calmed down considerably.
  • Most of that is thanks to China making a series of positive moves and statements.
  • This is shaping up to be a big win for the Trump administration.

Less than a week ago, the world seemed to be on the edge of a nuclear confrontation or at least a bloody military conflict in East Asia.

What a difference a few days make.

After a weekend filled with a series of conciliatory statements from China, some of them downright surprising, the situation with North Korea seems to be less tense right now, which could be construed as a major win for the Trump team.

To be specific, the big move came Monday as China agreed to ban imports of North Korean iron, lead, and coal as part of new U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang. That's hitting Kim Jon Un's regime where it hurts.

But there was also the statement in the Chinese-run state newspaper Global Times on Friday that said that if North Korea attacks the U.S., China should remain neutral. In other words, they'd be on their own.

And there was even calming talk from this side of the Pacific. In a jointly-written editorial in Monday's Wall Street Journal, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis both insisted the Trump administration is not seeking regime change in North Korea and wants a diplomatic resolution to this dispute.

While these developments do not fully constitute a real solution to the potential threats North Korea's nuclear and missile programs pose to the region and the world, everyone's nervous meter seems to have gone down several notches.

Even the stock market is staging a recovery rally based on the developments. Sure, most of this relief is based on words. But wasn't it just President Donald Trump's words about how North Korea faced "fire and fury" from the U.S. that caused all the jitters and Thursday's big market selloff in the first place?

Now if these sanctions hold and North Korea simply halts its ICBM launch tests, what many saw as some kind of massive fumble by the Trump team could easily turn into the administration's biggest triumph of the year.

It will be a very easy narrative for President Trump and his aides to pursue if they make the point that the president's tougher talk—that so many of his domestic critics condemned—seems to have moved China to finally do something meaningful to rein in North Korea.

By replacing President Trump's threatening rhetoric with the more conciliatory and reasoned statements of Mattis and Tillerson, the U.S. has given up nothing. But those words may have forced China's hand at long last.

All of this stems from a classic miscalculation by both Beijing and Pyongyang. Both of those countries are said to be seeking less of an America presence in East Asia. But threatening the U.S. and its allies with ICBM tests has produced the opposite effect with American military forces increasing their anti-missile power on the Korean peninsula as well as boosting the number of B-1B bombers to the region. By simply not doing what foreign powers and many political critics wanted, we're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

President Trump may have done more than just use blunt tweets to get a better-than-expected result. As a candidate and as president, Mr. Trump has long complained about China beating the U.S. in trade. But on Thursday, President Trump indicated he may be willing to sacrifice the trade issue if Beijing steps up on the North Korea problem: "If China helps us, I feel a lot differently toward trade, a lot differently toward trade."

Note that China made its announcement about imposing the import ban on the same day that the Trump administration signed a memo calling for China to be investigated for intellectual property trade violations.

In short, President Trump broke a lot of established foreign policy rules but seems to have come out on top.

At least for now.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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