President Trump has sent a stern warning to Xi Jinping that if China does not help us with North Korea, it will be bad for China and the U.S. will act on its own. Although sounding tough, the President may be dooming his meeting with Xi to just another round of failure on North Korea.
The past several years have demonstrated that the long-standing U.S. demand that China must play the central role in a strategy of expanding sanctions with North Korea may be misguided and unrealistic. While China has shared interests in resolving the crisis, there are clear limits to the pressure China is willing to apply. This reticence is due to China’s fears of a refugee influx it cannot control if the North Korean regime collapses, and its fear of losing a buffer state on its border. China also benefits from North Korea distracting the U.S. presence in Asia, as China’s own presence rises.
China’s security interests are not going to change. What needs to change is how we work with China. Trump cannot just bully Xi to another nominal yes on North Korea. He needs to work with Xi’s security interests, so that China’s support for pressuring the renegade state becomes implemented, sustainable policy.
Washington has had two long-standing objectives: to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and to reunify the Korean peninsula.