What's the Best Way for Trump to Persuade China to Up the Pressure on North Korea?

A ChinaFile Conversation

China’s President Xi Jinping called U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday morning urging American restraint in reaction to North Korea. Tensions between the United States and North Korea have risen to new levels ever since Pyongyang’s April 16 failed missile test. Top U.S. officials have repeatedly warned Pyongyang against more provocations—a warning Pyongyang does not seem likely to heed. “We’ll be conducting more missile tests on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis,” a high-ranking North Korean official recently told the BBC. After that, Trump’s number two, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, said that “The president and I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea,” adding a reminder that Trump had earlier said. “if China is unable to deal with North Korea, the United States and our allies will.” Meanwhile, China’s trade with North Korea in the first quarter of 2017 has actually increased, by a whopping 37.4 percent from the same period last year. Will Beijing start enforcing sanctions? How can the U.S. persuade China to push Pyongyang to denuclearize—a stated goal of both great powers? —The Editors


The Chinese clearly believe that events regarding North Korea are escalating to a dangerous level. And they have sent some signals that they are today even less happy with Pyongyang than before and notably concerned about Trump’s bottom line and willingness to use force. As a result of these two factors, and Xi’s recent positive conversations with Trump, the Chinese are arguably already willing to support more onerous sanctions, to a point. It is highly unlikely that they are going to shut off all economic intercourse with North Korea (and certainly not indefinitely) in the hopes of forcing denuclearization talks. It could just as easily lead to conflict. They do not want to take such a high risk. This ever-cautious stance was also indicated by Xi’s phone call to Trump on Sunday evening Washington time in which he reportedly yet again urged the president to exercise restraint and seek to engage the North Koreans.

Trump could of course try to escalate pressure or incentives on Beijing by threatening some type of kinetic strike (e.g., against any North Korean missile launches), or offering various trade incentives, or even a reduction in arms sales to Taiwan (thus violating the Six Assurances), but these are unlikely to prove possible politically or to prove successful. And a full-blown attack on North Korean missile and nuclear sites would only generate war and result in a catastrophic failure of U.S. policy beyond anything yet seen.

The real question is: What is Trump’s game plan if something less than a full-court press on sanctions (either with or without China) fails in the near term, neither stopping missile or nuclear testing nor bringing Pyongyang back to the table for denuclearization talks? What then?

The Chinese are not the key to solving this problem. But the U.S. does need their active cooperation in any way forward, to stand any reasonable chance of “success.” They could play a positive role in pressuring and/or encouraging Pyongyang to avoid actually deploying a nuclear-armed missile of any range, which should be the near- to medium-term goal, followed by a freeze. Temporary Chinese suspensions of oil and other trade could be used to achieve such goals. The Chinese might agree to that, on a limited basis.

Long term, what is needed is a dialogue with Beijing, Seoul, and Japan about the future of the peninsula and a revived Structural Framework-type arrangement, presenting Pyongyang with a very stark choice between isolation and irrelevancy or security and development.

There is a stark dichotomy between how Trump administration officials privately describe the recently completed North Korea policy review and the impression one gets from the blustery, swaggering public threats of preemptive attack. The policy that has been blessed by the interagency process includes emphasis on restrengthening the U.S. military to reverse degradations in capability resulting from defense budget cuts and an augmentation of ballistic missile defense.

What is likely to be the most striking difference from the Obama Administration will be a willingness to actually use existing legal authorities to more vigorously impose sanctions on North Korea and Chinese violators. While Obama talked a good game on sanctions, he only timidly and incrementally enforced U.S. laws. U.S. bureaucrats privately comment that they have long had lists of sanctionable entities but were prevented by senior Obama officials from targeting them.

Trump’s declarations before and after his summit with Chinese President Xi Jingping reflect the adage about March weather, “coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb.” In the run-up to the summit, President Trump vowed to press China to “solve” North Korea, vowing to use Chinese trade with the U.S. as leverage to force greater Chinese action against North Korea.

Yet, after the summit, Trump quickly flip-flopped, abandoning his strong rhetoric and instead proclaiming President Xi Jinping was “going to try very hard” on North Korea and that “I think he wants to help us with North Korea.” Trump acknowledged that his softer position on China was due to its perceived help on North Korea, asking, “Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem?” Trump continued to heap praise on China, declaring that “Nobody’s ever seen such a positive response on our behalf from China.”

It is disturbing that the president so quickly abandoned his strong rhetoric and pledges to increase pressure on Beijing to fully implement required U.N. sanctions and no longer turn a blind eye to prohibited activities taking place on its soil. The Trump administration’s intent to enforce U.S. laws, including imposing secondary sanctions on Chinese violators, is now on hold pending Beijing fulfilling pledges made privately during the summit.

Trump would benefit from reviewing China’s previous pledges to “do more” on North Korea. After each of North Korea’s previous nuclear and missile tests, some U.S. experts have assessed that Beijing had hardened its position toward North Korea, ended its unconditional support to Pyongyang, and predicted that some forthcoming provocation (now long since passed) would trigger even more decisive action by China.

Since 2006, there have been numerous media articles with titles such as “Chinese anger signals policy shift toward North Korea.” Similarly, there have been periodic assurances by overoptimistic U.S. diplomats that China now “got it,” was on board with U.S. objectives, and would adopt a tougher policy toward North Korea.

Perhaps President Trump’s efforts, combined with growing regional fear of North Korea’s growing capabilities and belligerence, will be the catalyst to induce long-hoped for Chinese pressure on Pyongyang. Or, Trump may join the long line of American presidents duped into believing Chinese promises.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile frenzy truly compel China to a cliff where its traditional policy on the DPRK is not able to stay the same. On the one hand, there is mounting domestic fear about even incidental leaking or explosion of North Korea’s nuclear facilities and devices. Almost all of them are located less than 300 kilometers from the Chinese border, and some of them are as close or closer than 100 kilometers. Every time Pyongyang tests a nuclear bomb, it causes earthquakes on the Chinese side of the border. The majority of Chinese are deeply worried that northeast China could be devastated by a variety of nuclear risks coming out of the world’s most reclusive country. On the other hand, the deepened complexity of prolonged nuclear standoff obviously impedes China’s national interest, and costs Beijing a lot in its relations with a couple of key regional players, such as South Korea and Japan, as well as with the United States. Friction of the U.S. deployment of the THAAD anti missile system in South Korea led to Beijing’s tough-faced move to squeeze Seoul economically, but China got no return at all—its economic retaliation alienates South Korean liberals, fuels Korean anti-China sentiment, and even hardens Seoul’s resolve to tilt towards Washington. Furthermore, President Trump complained that China was offering little help in tackling the North Korean issue. Needless to say, China’s international image has been tarnished by its providing Pyongyang a long-term economic “lifeline.” China’s North Korea policy has long deserved an overall overhaul. It has more to do with China recalibrating its interests and less to with the pressures or lures from the Trump Administration.

The Mar-a-Lago consensus between President Xi and his American counterpart President Trump provides a glue for China and the United States to reinforce their cooperation to break up the nuclear impasse on the Korea Peninsula, and offers an invaluable chance for Beijing to retool its obsolete and irrelevant North Korea policy. There is a positive momentum in China, domestically and internationally, to proceed with a genuinely effective North Korea policy—collectively forcing Pyongyang to be less illusory about their slim opportunity of being a de facto nuclear power by exploiting great power competition, and also showing Beijing’s new posture to win back the “heart and soul” of the Korean people. Of course, this hardened policy against North Korea will also help placate Chinese fear of an increasingly unmanageable nuclear risk possibly generated by North Korea.

President Xi can actually underscore his resolve to help rein in North Korea, and it will also boost his popularity at home in China. However, Beijing has to keep some delicate balance among a variety of contending factions within China on how to handle North Korea. Therefore, its policy redirection would not shift rapidly nor very tangibly. Yet, the trend has so far proven to be positive and encouraging. If Pyongyang tests one more nuclear bomb, relentlessly ignoring China’s warnings, it will force Beijing to employ economic leverage to keep North Korea stranded. President Xi seems to be a tough guy, and might risk something to significantly change China’s policy course on North Korea.

The Trump Administration needs to push Beijing gently but firmly for closer collaboration and coordination against Pyongyang. The push is not through highlighting the military option or vowing to proceed without China’s help, but through some shared vision and plan to terminate North Korea’s nuclear proliferation. It is the time for Beijing and Washington to sit down to negotiate a package of deals—time for both countries to press Pyongyang harder together, mapping out crisis responses, opening up a chance for diplomacy and elaborating on a contingency plan.

For all its brevity, the Chinese state media readout of last Sunday’s call between Presidents Xi and Trump contains some suggestive elements. As was widely noted, the statement includes an admonition (phrased in such a way as to apply to both North Korea and the U.S.) to “maintain self-restraint and avoid doing anything that would exacerbate tensions on the Peninsula.” This is, of course, excellent advice up to a point. Even a limited military strike by the U.S. would run the risk of escalating into a war that would be both a humanitarian and a global economic disaster. The idea that, as Vice President Pence seemed to suggest recently, the U.S. would turn to military force before any new direct negotiations with North Korea is dangerous, but hopefully not accurate.

On the other hand, self-restraint and negotiation are useful only as critical guidelines. They don’t actually provide inherent solutions to the problem at hand. For that, it is necessary to confront not the problem of “tensions” per se, but rather that of uncertainty. What are the unknown factors that give rise to fears for the actors involved in the situation, and how can they be confronted? The U.S., clearly, fears a regime with which it is still technically at war having the means to launch nuclear strikes on American soil. North Korea, similarly, feels existentially threatened by a superpower with a massive military presence on its border that has never recognized the legitimacy of its government or even its existence as a state.

China has fears running in both directions: a nuclear capable North Korea poses huge risks of regional destabilization, an imaginable direct military threat, and potential ecological harm even in the absence of war. At the same time, though, it is also very much afraid of any unified Korea allied with the U.S., with American troops stationed on its border. And the “loss” of North Korea in any such scenario would most likely be viewed as a geopolitical failure that would greatly compromise the careers of China’s current political leaders. For many reasons, China views a new outbreak of war as something to be avoided, perhaps at all costs.

These dynamics suggest that China may be willing to continue intensifying economic pressure. But there is no guarantee that even the strongest sanctions would persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, which it has tied to its own existential fears of U.S.-led regime change or “reunification” efforts. Any U.S. progress will rely on imposing added costs in the form of better sanctions enforcement and new Chinese sanctions, but also in addressing the forms of uncertainty that lead to North Korean intransigence and Chinese ambivalence. For this, talks are absolutely essential, as is providing some assurance against fears of unilateral intervention. Ultimately, offering North Korea existential security in the form of a peace treaty and diplomatic recognition may be the only way to secure its commitment to a monitored denuclearization process and to achieve stability in the region, as well as Chinese assistance.

Perhaps one of the great difficulties about the issue of North Korea is that there is always the lingering doubt: is it about Pyongyang or is it about Beijing? Since its beginnings, the North Korea issue was also about Beijing—to gauge how it behaves in a difficult and sensitive situation and thus promote or fail it as a global stakeholder.

Certainly the issue of North Korea is not just simply about its ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons. Yes, there is also that, but there is the overarching question about what the future of North Korea will be. The real question is: What future for North Korea does the U.S., Japan, and South Korea want? What is the end game? Perhaps one should start from there and then work backwards to achieve the desired result.

This would be no small feat, because it would entail the redrawing of the political map of North Asia and also give China a new regional role. Yet without this, China would always be suspicious that the U.S. wants to start a fuss with North Korea to create problems with Beijing. Unfortunately, mutual mistrust has grown for years.

All of this implies a massive rethinking of Chinese foreign policy, improvement of ties with all of its neighbors, and a greater Chinese adherence to a world order led by the U.S.

We don’t know if China is even considering it. It’s a lot to put on the table at this moment, but it is important to know that these issues are real and behind the talk about present situation.

The best way to convince China to cooperate on a more constructive approach to the North Korea problem is for the Trump administration to initiate dialogue with Pyongyang. Starting with a deal that freezes the nuclear and missile program and returns IAEA inspectors, President Trump can work closely with Beijing—but more importantly, with the incoming government in Seoul—to address the nuclear problem at its roots, namely, North Korea's profound sense of insecurity and alienation from the good things that have been going on in East Asia over the past decades.

Pining away for Beijing to ramp up pressure and sanctions against North Korea is misguided as a strategy to get Kim Jong Un to alter course. North Korea knows how to survive in an atmosphere of hostility and isolation. Much harder for them is to deal with cooperation and development. The one good thing about Kim Jong Un is that he shows a seriousness of purpose in wanting to achieve the kind of prosperity that does require improving relations with his neighbors... but he can only rationally do so on the basis of regime survival and national security.

The question is not, “How can Trump persuade China to up pressure on North Korea?” The real question, the one that opens up a more constructive path forward, is: “How can Trump be persuaded to pursue ‘maximum engagement’ with North Korea itself?” The Joint Statement released today by the heads of the State Department, Defense Department and Intelligence Community focuses on pressure, but also refers to a need to “return to the path of dialogue” and remaining "open to negotiations." These are promising signals, however faint. It will take skillful diplomacy and good intelligence to follow them up in action— on the basis of the ample deterrence provided by the US-South Korea alliance. There is no military “solution” to the North Korea problem, and more sanctions are not going to do the trick either. President Trump does not need Xi Jinping to achieve progress on the Korean Peninsula. The key is already in Washington. It’s a matter of having the political courage to use it to unlock the door.

Consensus is building in Washington that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program represents a significant and increasingly imminent threat to the U.S. homeland. U.S. officials have indicated that they reject the posture of strategic patience adopted by the Obama Administration and have not ruled out force as an option. The White House has taken a number of steps to signal its preparations for coercive action, including summoning the entire U.S. Senate for a special briefing. At the same time, the White House has implied that its restraint hinges on China’s ability to exert transformative pressure on Pyongyang.

At Mar-a-Lago President Xi Jinping sought to persuade his host that China’s leverage over its ally is limited. And, indeed the record suggests that China has had little influence over Pyongyang decision to conduct successive nuclear tests. In any case, although China dominates North Korean trade, China is unwilling to put the kind of economic pressure on its neighbor that could lead not only to a humanitarian crisis but trigger militarily provocative action by Pyongyang.

With Beijing’s top envoys apparently rebuffed by Kim Jong Un, if there were hopes that the threat of military action from the U.S. would bring North Korea to the negotiating table as it did in 2003, it is likely that these have faded. However, at least at the moment, Beijing’s efforts to slow momentum in Washington toward preventative military measures against the North—or intensifying rhetoric about moving in that direction—appear to be working. Indeed, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Niki Haley opined on Monday, “I think that they [China] are trying to put the pressure on North Korea, and I think it’s working.”

Beijing’s gambit that if an immediate crisis can be defused then time is on its side may bear out. The upcoming election in the South promises a major shift in policy toward North Korea in Seoul in a direction Beijing can live with. Top presidential candidate Moon Jae-in has stood with protestors against the deployment of THAAD missile defense system before the election and has suggested that his administration would seek to restart Six Party Talks and work toward boosting economic cooperation with the North.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula has become more complicated because of the words and actions of both North Korea and the United States.

North Korea’s continued missile tests and possible sixth nuclear test pose a threat to regional peace and stability. But the U.S. has not made the matter better by flexing its muscles, with military drills near the DMZ and warships gathering in the region.

Words coming out of Trump’s meeting with U.S. senators on Wednesday are more moderate compared with days ago. But he did not say what steps the U.S. will take to ease the tension.

It is wrong-headed for people to suggest that China should cut all its economic ties with North Korea. China has supported and implemented U.N. Security Council resolutions on the D.P.R.K. It would be unrealistic for China to cut all economic ties, a move that would cause a huge humanitarian disaster and destabilize the region.

Those who believe that more economic sanctions would bring the D.P.R.K. to its knees have forgotten that all five D.P.R.K. nuclear tests since 2006 were conducted under U.N. sanctions and U.S. unilateral sanctions. No one should assume that more sanctions would work magically.

Some in the U.S. floated the idea to arm South Korea with nuclear weapons and to encourage Japan to develop its own bombs. Some still believe that a military option is viable.

Such thinking can be summarized in one word: simplistic.

China is indeed worried about a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Who wouldn’t be? South Korea and Japan, which host U.S. troops, are surely more worried that a war there would devastate their people and cities.

The U.S. said it would not tolerate North Korea having a ballistic missile that can hit the continental U.S., but it does not want to address North Korea’s concern for its own security. Despite U.S. assurance that it is not pursuing regime change, such words have no credibility after the U.S. invasion of Iraq under a false pretext. Its regime change in Libya in 2011 to oust Muammar Gaddafi after he gave up nuclear weapons program again suggests to North Korea that it should hold on to its nuclear program if it wants to prevent a similar U.S. aggression.

In this sense, the U.S. should correct its mistakes, such as by moving towards signing a peace treaty with North Korea, heeding the Chinese proposal to resume the Six-Party Talks, and implement the “two-suspensions”—the U.S. suspends its joint drills with South Korea while the D.P.R.K. suspends its nuclear tests.

The key to denuclearization is actually very much in the hands of North Korea and the U.S. China can help if both of them refrain from provocative actions.

Since war is not a first option for any stakeholder, President Trump, when talking to his Chinese interlocutor, won’t commit to a preemptive strike against North Korea, nor will he wait to be preempted by North Korea.

China would hate to see a war at its doorstep, because war would cause chaos at its borders. To secure Chinese participation in an international collaboration against North Korea, or even to get Beijing to take the lead in an effort to check North Korea’s further development of nuclear arms, the Trump administration must avoid provoking Pyongyang. Should the White House take such a counterproductive step, it is certain that North Korea would respond in-kind, thus plunging the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia into fire, at which stage it would be hard for any China to apply effective pressure on North Korea.

In the meantime, President Trump should reach consensus with China that if pressures are not increased, Beijing and Washington might very likely end up seeing a war on the Korean Peninsula anyway. For instance, if Pyongyang tests its ICBM, would the U.S. be able to restrain itself from interception? This scenario might start a war.

In persuading China to step up pressure on North Korea, President Trump needs to respect China’s security and overall interests, including domestic stability, economic growth, and national integrity. Presently, it looks that the two countries have strengthened their tacit collaboration in this regard. But they are still far from reaching the objective of denuclearizing North Korea.

Trump’s expression of willingness to meet with Kim Jong-un, essentially, should be seen as his signal to China, rather than to Kim. Trump’s North Korean policy, despite his harsh criticism of Obama’s handling of Pyongyang, is the same as Obama’s: to outsource the North Korean problem to China to solve. It won’t work. The U.S. and China don’t share enough strategic trust in East Asia, as evidenced by their discord on THAAD. Trump’s best strategy on North Korea is to make China less relevant in the game and enact his diplomatic rhetoric into action; meet Kim over a hamburger.

Trump has been displaying high public confidence that his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping would soon straitjacket Kim’s two hands to contain his nuclear and missile libido. That won’t happen.

Trump seems in an experimental mindset to test the assumption that China would only take limited action against North Korea. “We're going to test that assumption,” Trump’s top diplomat Tillerson also said. Cutting off oil, for instance, will be seen as China’s showing “sincerity” in this regard and is something widely demanded by American and South Korean security experts. However, the oil saga is a myth that has been widely reported but not substantiated, according to a person who directly raised this question to Wang Yi, who was China’s top negotiator on North Korea and now the foreign minister.

China hands are patiently tolerating Team Trump’s “learning curve” with China. But sooner or later, Trump’s diplomatic intercourse with the Beijing regime will end up stillborn.

China’s current strategy is to bide time, while establishing the appearance of cooperation with Washington, to dissuade Trump’s contemplating a military option on North Korea. The upcoming presidential election in South Korea promises a major shift in policy toward North Korea in a direction Beijing can live with.

In the bigger scheme of things, China and the U.S. are increasingly locked in a “rules-setting” competition globally. China feels increasingly uncomfortable with the “rules-based” international order, which China interprets as “U.S. rules.” Instead of following the U.S. rules, now China wants to set its own rules. Xi pursues the “Chinese dream” (zhongguo meng), not American dream.

Xi’s attending the Davos World Economic Forum was the boldest Chinese attempt to compete with the United States' dominant position in world economic and strategic institutions. There, Xi proclaimed that China would seize the role as the leader of “globalization” when Trump was preaching isolationism.

Under Xi, China created a World Bank of its own, called the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Xi then frontloaded a new Silk Road project, “One Belt, One Road,” that links Asia with Europe. Xi also declared China a “maritime power” (haiyang qiangguo) and has been continuing military buildup in the South China Sea.

China is trying to snatch American allies, such as the Philippines. (America is doing the same, for instance, with Myanmar). China is enlarging its sphere of influence by providing (or withholding) economic incentives and privileged seats in China-sponsored high-level gatherings. Overall, Asian nations are steadily pulled into China’s orbit as Trump puts “America First.”

Common discussions on China’s behavior on North Korea often neglects this bigger Chinese regional strategy and its relationship with the U.S. In fact both Washington and Beijing tend to see the North Korean issue under the rubric of their bilateral relationship and regional rivalry. When Beijing and Washington are sending out sound bites on Pyongyang, they are often sending signals and warnings to each other. For instance, Trump’s re-deployment of the U.S.S. Carl Vinson is aimed at China; to pressure China to do more on North Korea. Taken together, this indicates the limits of cooperation between China and the U.S. on North Korea.

Trump does not need China to make progress on North Korea. Washington has been consciously avoiding this notion, because it would mean acknowledging America lacks good options in dealing with Pyongyang. But it’s time to think outside the box. China is America’s Freudian obsession that needs to be discarded in dealing with North Korea. In fact, Pyongyang is a manageable threat Washington alone can deal with. America’s best strategy with China in dealing with North Korea is to sit down with Kim over a hamburger and make China less relevant.