US-China disagreements over North Korea have softened in recent weeks, with Beijing — which accounts for about 90 percent of its neighbor’s foreign trade — apparently increasingly willing to tighten sanctions. But for all this clamping down, Beijing still has key differences with Washington over tackling the hermit state.
A key reason for the disagreement with the US over the scope and severity of action, including potential military action, is that China does not want to push the regime so hard that it becomes destabilized. From the vantage point of Chinese officials, this risks North Korea behaving even more unpredictably, and the outside possibility of the regime’s collapse.
Beijing believes this would not be in its interests for at least two reasons. First, if the Communist regime in Pyongyang falls it could undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party too. Second, Beijing fears that such a collapse could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, a large influx of refugees that it would need to manage, and ultimately the emergence of a pro-US successor state.
Nevertheless, in the face of repeated provocation from the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including a sixth nuclear test last month, Washington and Beijing may now be coming closer together. What the Trump team now wants to do is encourage China to jettison more of its longstanding reservations about squeezing its neighbor.
As Tillerson made clear to his hosts in Beijing, the stakes are growing fast and he and other US officials fear that Trump could soon be facing his first major foreign policy crisis. The challenge is especially pressing for Washington, as the latest nuclear test and about 15 missile launches this year are further evidence that North Korea is moving closer to developing a nuclear warhead capable of being fitted on an intercontinental ballistic missile that could strike the US mainland, let alone key allies like Japan or South Korea in much closer proximity.
With the US and its territories, including Guam, looking increasingly vulnerable, Trump and his allies in the region want to intensify international pressure following tightening of UN and wider unilateral US and Chinese sanctions. What Beijing fears, especially with more provocation from Pyongyang on the horizon, is that Trump is now thinking much more seriously about a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
The US president has recently asserted that the regime “is behaving in a very dangerous manner, and something will have to be done about it … and probably dealt with rapidly.” Moreover, he condemned the latest nuclear test and missile launches as “very hostile and dangerous to the United States, and talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!”
While Washington’s next steps are not obvious, what is certain is that the two-decade US policy of strategic patience with Pyongyang is now over, and all options are on the table. Aside from military force that Trump has threatened with his “fire and fury” and “locked and loaded” rhetoric, scenarios range from a new round of peace talks at the dovish end of the spectrum, to more hawkish actions such as a naval blockade to enforce sanctions — including interdicting ships suspected of selling North Korea weapons abroad, one of the regime’s key sources of income.
Differences remain over the scope and severity of action against North Korea, but Washington and Beijing are trying to align their positions.
Trump has also threatened to stop all trade with countries, including China, “doing business with North Korea.” However, this lacks credibility given that in 2016 alone the United States imported about $463 billion in goods from China. Ending trade with Beijing would trigger a massive international economic shock, creating a protectionist spiral in its wake.
China believes the Korean stand-off can only be resolved by talks, and it will have been encouraged by Tillerson’s admission on Saturday that Washington is now in “direct contact” with Pyongyang about this. The Trump team has said in the past that while there are no set conditions for such dialogue, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have advanced too far to simply freeze its program in return for concessions. Moreover, Washington also wants Pyongyang to demonstrate its seriousness about any such talks by actions, such as allowing International Atomic Energy inspectors access to key sites.
While the fact that Washington has not ruled out further dialogue will reassure Chinese officials, they remain exceptionally concerned that miscalculation by either Pyongyang — or Washington or its regional allies — could lead to a military conflict. Beijing believes the seeds of misperception for that to happen are already in place.
These include Pyongyang’s repeated threats to fire missiles at the US territory of Guam, military exercises over the summer involving US and South Korean troops, South Korean simulations of an attack on North Korea’s nuclear sites, and the fact that the US and South Korea have been conducting semi-regular tests of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system. Condemned by not just North Korea, but also Russia and China, THAAD is being deployed in South Korea to intercept missiles launched by the regime.
Taken overall, with Trump possibly facing his first major foreign policy crisis, his team are seeking to align positions with Beijing. While bilateral positions on Pyongyang are edging closer, China will remain skeptical of military action and instead favor doubling down on diplomacy.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.