U.S. President Donald Trump must discuss North Korea again when he meets his Chinese counterpart next month. They talked about it while meeting in the United States in April because Trump values China’s support. He wants to make the reclusive, rogue North Korean leadership stop testing missiles after firing off more than 20 to date this year (along with a reported H-bomb test) — and China holds the key. It is North Korea’s best friend, specifically the source of fuel and food aid.
But when Trump meets Chinese President Xi Jinping next month in China, the host will probably just voice conceptual support for the American leader’s goal without offering much more.
China torn between North Korean and American goals
China wants to be seen as a sober, responsible global citizen cooperating with fearful Japan and South Korea as well as the United States in containing North Korean military expansion. But at the same time it must go on supporting North Korea to avoid a regime collapse that could flood it with refugees, per the view of some scholars. A defunct North Korea could also install some other less pro-Beijing power along China’s border.
“Unless Beijing’s strategic calculus has changed, I can’t imagine Xi doing anything meaningful on North Korea,” says Sean King, senior vice president of New York political consultancy Park Strategies.
Trump must ask again
Trump would need to try China again anyway because North Korea headlines his Asia policy after nine months in office. He has thundered so loudly about the missile tests that North Korea once fancied he had officially declared war. And the U.S. government knows China has power to sway North Korea, for example by cutting off aid (the fuel can go to military use) or scaling back trade. China occasionally plays to North Korean adversaries by backing U.N. sanctions, cutting off certain exports and banning transactions by North Koreans at major Chinese banks. Trump’s pressure on Beijing helps sustain that Chinese pressure on Pyongyang.
“The Chinese side will take credit for its more robust actions on North Korea and claim to be fully implementing U.N. Security Council resolutions,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul.
China has done all it can?
Despite China’s self-built image as a bridge between North Korea and its foreign detractors, Xi might finally tell Trump that he’s done all he can for now. A rack of U.N. sanctions that it backed last month was among the strongest ever. China knows that further foreign efforts to punish North Korea will just prompt more missile launches, exacerbating rather than easing Pyongyang’s problems with other countries. The Chinese leader might even push the issue back at his guest this time.
“Both sides will tout U.S.-China cooperation, but Chinese officials may suggest that Beijing has done its part, and now Washington and Seoul should reduce tensions and pursue talks with Pyongyang,” Easley says. “President Xi himself is likely to caution President Trump on the dangers of military escalation, arguing that the Kim (Jong-un) regime tends to respond to increased pressure with greater belligerence.”
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