On its face, Trump’s analysis of North Korea makes some sense. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner. If Beijing squeezed Pyongyang by cutting off its main source of money, then maybe it would stop its programs or at a minimum come to the negotiating table.
But Trump’s theory was proven wrong, and it shouldn’t have been a surprise.
“The US never had a chance to get Beijing to substitute America’s national interest for its own,” Rapp-Hooper said.
So Trump lashed out using his favorite weapon, Twitter. This was from July 29.
The core issue is Washington’s primary fear that North Korea develops means of reliably firing nuclear missiles capable of reaching the US. China’s primary concern is very different. It’s terrified that the Kim regime could collapse, sending millions of North Korean refugeesflocking into China.
That’s something Beijing expressly does not want. Beijing prioritizes stability on the Korean Peninsula. Any change, China fears, may lead to problems for the Chinese government down the road.
Plus, if America won a war with North Korea, it might be able to negotiate the reunification of the peninsula on its, and South Korea’s, terms. That wouldn’t only be politically bad for China, but also US and South Korean forces would be stationed on China’s border — something Beijing doesn’t want.
There’s yet another benefit for China to let things continue as they are. “The Chinese have an incentive to let this fester because it’s a big distraction for Washington,” said Narang. “North Korea is a huge thorn in our side.”
In essence, keeping American eyes on North Korea allows China to continue to do what it wants in the region, like build military facilities on artificial islands it constructed in the South China Sea.
It’s worth remembering through all of this that Trump thought China could easily solve the North Korean problem. Then after a 10-minute conversation with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in April, he realized it was more complicated than he thought. Now Trump has changed his mind again and thinks China didn’t do enough to stop North Korea.
So the Trump administration slapped sanctions on China on June 29, as my Vox colleague Zeeshan Aleem noted at the time.
“While we will continue to seek international cooperation on North Korea, the United States is sending an emphatic message across the globe that we will not hesitate to take action against persons, companies, and financial institutions who enable this regime,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a June 29 statement on the earlier round of sanctions, clearly alluding to China.
The administration is thinking of taking additional punitive measures against Beijing, reportsPolitico. Those could include new trade restrictions or sanctions. Either way, whatever Trump chooses to do is unlikely to work, according to Zachary Keck, an Asia security expert at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
“Placing sanctions on China is unlikely to have much success,” he told me in an interview. “Ultimately, Chinese leaders’ calculus — that living with a stable if nuclear-armed North Korea is better than living with millions of refugees flooding into their country — won’t change.”
The costs would have to be very, veryhigh to change the way China views the North Korea situation. And it’s unlikely the US can inflict that much damage without hurting its own economy as well.
Also, Congress went further last week, overwhelmingly passing legislation slapping even more punitive sanctions on Pyongyang (as well as on Iran and, most notably, Russia); the White House said Trump will sign the bill soon. It’s a good course of action to take, Rapp-Hooper noted, saying there was some success getting North Korea to the negotiating table in the 1990s — even if it might not work now.
After all, now that the country has what it wants — an ICBM — it’s hard to know what sanctioning Pyongyang might do other than slowing down the program, Narang told me.
It’s no surprise that Trump is lashing out at China on Twitter, since Beijing was so central to his strategy for containing North Korea and China clearly didn’t want to move as far as he wanted it to. It remains to be seen if his next plan — squeezing China and North Korea simultaneously — works any better.