On April 6, 2017, China’s President Xi Jinping and President Trump met for the first time to discuss trade tensions, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and other issues. After the two-day presidential summit at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, the two leaders announced a 100-day plan to improve strained trade relations and boost cooperation between the rival nations. However, it appears that Trump and Xi were unable to agree on a clear plan of action for North Korea.
The Trump administration’s unexpected military strike in Syria—launched on the summit’s first day—highlighted a significant difference between U.S. and Chinese foreign policy. Trump entered the first meeting with the Chinese leader convinced that China could simply rein in North Korea and the threat posed by the country’s nuclear program. Of course, North Korea’s relationship with China, its main international backer, is not so simple. While Trump has threatened to take military action against North Korea, China urges the U.S. to refrain from making a preemptive strike. China’s goal is to maintain a Korean peninsula that is simultaneously split yet stable, which has become increasingly difficult as U.S. and North Korean relations continue to be tense. U.S. or North Korean aggression will inevitably lead to conflict in China’s backyard. “If a war occurs, the result is a situation in which everybody loses and there can be no winner,” Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said, according to Xinhua, China’s official news agency. “It is not the one who espouses harsher rhetoric or raises a bigger fist that will win.”
One day before the U.S.-China summit, Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, ordered another ballistic-missile test, displaying his capacity and willingness to cause trouble in the region while ensuring North Korea’s importance on the summit agenda. Although China wants the Korean peninsula to be free of nuclear weapons, the North has significantly expanded its weapons program. The medium-range missile test on April 5 marked the seventh missile test of the year. China could not possibly benefit from having an aggressive, nuclear-armed, and dangerously unpredictable neighbor, which begs the question: Why doesn’t China do more to discourage this behavior?
In reality, China has already responded to the rise in North Korean aggression. It agreed to abide by the most recent round of United Nations economic sanctions on North Korea and, in February, suspended its purchases of North Korean coal—the largest source of foreign exchange for the isolated country—for the remainder of the year. Xi also blames Kim for the February assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, who had close ties to China and lived in Macau under Chinese protection. However, in spite of its efforts, China still appears to be taking a passive stance because Chinese policy changes have been slight in comparison to the dramatic shifts in American policy toward North Korea.
“If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” Trump recently stated in an interview with the Financial Times. For the U.S., the threat of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting California is proving to be a game-changer. As North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs make more significant and noticeable developments, the Trump administration may be pressured to take an even greater hawkish stance toward the North. Increased U.S. presence in East Asia will be a nuisance to the Chinese government.
Even though China continues to discourage unilateral U.S. action, it seems unlikely to make radical policy changes to prevent it. This decision is also not without reason. China has backed, and will back, the North Korean regime because it does not want a unified Korean peninsula, especially if it becomes a single, stable, larger American ally on its border. The collapse of the North may also lead to a massive North Korean exodus into China’s northeastern provinces, subjecting those economically weaker regions to increased instability.
While these reasons have justified China’s support of North Korea since the 1950s, recent developments have contributed to China’s resolve:
1. While the North’s weapons program has ramped up, North Korean missiles are not—for the moment—pointed at China. If China breaks tradition and adopts a more aggressive stance against North Korea, China’s protégé could become an unpredictable enemy.
2. China does not perceive a North Korean ICBM as a serious threat, at least not to the extent that the U.S. does. Currently, there is no evidence that North Korea can place a nuclear warhead on an ICBM and reliably hit any part of the U.S.
3. China is concerned about South Korea’s plans to deploy a U.S. anti-missile system, known as the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). While the U.S. and South Korea have officially assured that the missiles are to protect against a North Korean strike, China worries that it is really aimed at its own missiles.
Consequently, China continues to align itself with the North against the South. Perhaps China is more concerned with other countries’ reaction to North Korean hostility than the hostility itself.
Policy toward North Korea continues to test diplomatic relations between China and the U.S. The threat of unilateral American action is a grave concern to the Chinese government. Perhaps the Trump administration’s airstrike in Syria was meant to kill two birds with one stone: project strength and send a message to China. The U.S. is still entertaining a military option to deal with North Korea, which would undoubtedly lead to war on the Korean peninsula. A lack of coordination could also result in a decision by South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons. Suddenly, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula can quickly become proliferation, instability, or war.
- Patrick Lin