from Asia Unbound

Can China Meet President Trump’s Expectations On North Korea?

Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a dinner at the start of their summit at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., April 6, 2017. Reuters/Carlos Barria

Last updated May 3, 2017

Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a dinner at the start of their summit at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., April 6, 2017. Reuters/Carlos Barria
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North Korea is not abandoning its nuclear ambitions, as proven by Saturday’s failed ballistic missile test. However, neither is the United States abandoning its plan to pressure North Korea into submission. 

The key to the success of U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategy? China.

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North Korean Nuclear Program

Trump’s efforts to win China over to his “maximum pressure and engagement” approach to North Korea started at the Mar-a-Lago summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in early April. Days later, Trump expressed his “absolute confidence that [Xi] will be trying very, very hard” to resolve the North Korea issue and mentioned that “some very unusual moves have been made over the last two or three hours.”

Shortly thereafter, there were rumors in media reports that China might have reduced the flow of petroleum to Pyongyang, causing gas rationing in the capital.

Concerns over U.S. pressure

Despite China’s uneasiness with a nuclear North Korea, however, China continues to see ramped up U.S. military pressure on North Korea as an even bigger concern.

An editorial in the state-run Global Times shows Beijing’s frustration with a possible U.S. military response to Pyongyang’s threats. And in a call between Trump and Xi on April 24, the Chinese president switched back to urging Trump to exercise restraint. At the United Nations, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi counseled enforcement of sanctions along with his usual urging all parties to manage the issue peacefully through dialogue.

The Chinese position elicited a statement by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the U.S. does not seek regime change. The commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific command, Admiral Harry Harris, also said that U.S. pressure is designed to “bring the North Korean leader to his senses, not to his knees.”

Yet U.S. military maneuvers and warnings about future North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile development from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley overshadow these statements and have drawn ever more shrill responses from Pyongyang.

More on:

China

North Korea

Sanctions

Donald Trump

North Korean Nuclear Program

A litmus test for China-U.S. relations

The Trump administration is clearly eager to change North Korea’s trajectory—in any way possible. And Beijing’s role in helping do so seems to be a litmus test that will influence the future of the U.S.-China relationship.

Yet Chinese and American analysts alike point out the likely limits of China’s willingness to pressure North Korea to the extent the Trump administration desires.

While Chinese analysts recognize the dangers posed by North Korea, they have long seen Chinese influence as limited and believe that U.S. hostility toward North Korea is the root cause of peninsular tensions. But American analysts and political leaders are increasingly frustrated that China has not cut the umbilical cord of food and energy supplies that the North depends on for its economic survival despite its political isolation.

Frustration in Washington 

Secretary Tillerson has identified gaps in Chinese enforcement of UN sanctions as the missing ingredient in successfully curbing North Korea. The Trump administration ultimately expects Beijing to put enough pressure on Pyongyang to make Kim realize that the nuclear program endangers rather than assures the survival of his regime.

However, this course of action imposes on China higher risks than the country has been willing to take so far. It prefers the status quo to the dangers of political instability and refugee flows across China’s border. 

Another area in which frustration in Washington has boiled over is related to China’s cautious and permissive approach that enables North Korean front companies and elites to skirt sanctions by embedding North Korean procurement in China’s supply chain so that North Korean entities can secure necessary financing from Chinese banks despite UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions on such activities. The UN sanctions reports are intended to strengthen enforcement of the UN resolutions, but instead they show how North Korean sanctions evasion methods have neutralized the economic impact of the resolutions. 

There are moves in Congress afoot to force the Trump administration to take a more aggressive unilateral approach to punishing Chinese business partners and financial enablers of North Korea through the unilateral application of secondary sanctions, but the question is how to do so without sparking global financial stability, given that North Korean operations seem to be deeply embedded in China’s financing system.

Will China pay up? 

Ever since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, China has struggled with a menu of policy options toward North Korea that are even more unsatisfactory compared to those faced by the United States. Placing the level of pressure needed to force Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear weapons program risks the North Korean regime collapsing, leading to refugee flows and potentially a unified Korea allied with the United States; refusing to crack down on North leads to a North Korea racing toward its nuclear finish-line, U.S. military build-up in Northeast Asia, and even a direct military conflict with the United States.

The price that Beijing pays for its longstanding support for a North Korean regime that exports instability as its only sure means of regime survival is a bill that has finally come due. The Trump administration seems intent on securing outstanding payments as a principal means by which to pressure Pyongyang. Can Trump convince China to pay up?

This posted originally appeared on Forbes.com.

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