The Skeptics

How the U.S. Can Win Over China and Silence North Korea

North Korea’s recent ballistic-missile test has triggered new demands in the United States that China pressure Pyongyang to cease its disruptive and provocative behavior. Senate minority leader Charles Schumer is the latest voice to join the chorus. Such calls have taken place for many years with few signs of success. There is growing anger and frustration in U.S. political and policy circles with Beijing’s tepid support for economic sanctions and other coercive measures against its longtime ally.

The underlying assumption is that China has tremendous influence over North Korea and is the one country that could bring Pyongyang to heel. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman once stated that Beijing could end North Korea’s misconduct “tomorrow” with one uncompromising message to that country’s government.

There is no doubt that China has more influence over North Korea than any other country. And the potential for even greater leverage exists. China provides a majority of North Korea’s food and energy supplies, so a cutoff—or even a major reduction—in those supplies would likely create a crisis for Pyongyang.

Nevertheless, American politicians and pundits tend to overestimate the extent of Beijing’s influence, unless Chinese officials are willing to resort to such a drastic option. And that course would entail severe potential risks for China. It could destabilize North Korea, leading to massive refugee flows into its northern neighbor as well as South Korea. Worse, a desperate North Korean leadership might lash out with the kind of military adventurism that everyone wishes to deter.

There would have to be extremely appealing incentives for Beijing to consider adopting such a high-risk strategy. Yet American officials and opinion leaders who demand that China take action almost never even hint at the incentives that Washington, DC should offer. They need to realize that foreign policy is rarely a charitable enterprise, and Chinese foreign policy is never a charitable enterprise.

What could Washington offer Beijing to get that government to become much more hard-line and proactive regarding North Korea’s unacceptable behavior? Four possibilities for concessions come to mind.

Taiwan. Beijing’s frustration with Taiwan’s de facto independence is resurging after the triumph of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party in the 2016 presidential and legislative elections. As president-elect, Donald Trump exacerbated Chinese worries when he had an unprecedented telephone conversation with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. Later, Trump even asserted in a media interview that the United States felt no obligation to be bound by the “One China” policy. He has since modified that stance by stating to Chinese president Xi Jinping that his administration would not challenge that policy.

However, the United States could go far beyond a status quo position in exchange for vigorous Chinese action against North Korea. Beginning with the Shanghai Communiqué that Richard Nixon signed in 1972, Washington has acknowledged China’s position that Taiwan is an integral part of China, but has never endorsed that position. The option exists to make that policy change, which would be a very appealing concession. The United States would sweeten the offer further by explicitly pledging to phase out arms sales to Taipei by a certain date. The combination would undoubtedly be extremely tempting to Beijing.

It would be a difficult concession to make, though, both in terms of policy and domestic politics. Taiwan has become a robust democracy, and the island is strategically located, especially if Washington wants to continue its policy of thwarting Beijing’s ability to project its naval power out into the western Pacific. Taiwan has a large number of admirers and allies in Congress and the overall American policy community, so the opposition to concessions at that entity’s expense would be ferocious. If they ponder making possible offers, U.S. officials would probably look elsewhere for an easier option.

South China Sea. Tensions have been rising for years between China and the United States over Beijing’s expansive ambitions in the South China Sea. China’s alleged historical claims would encompass over 80 percent of that body of water. Matters have become even more contentious in the past two to three years as China has embarked on an extensive project to build land onto reefs and other small structures to boost its claims. Some of the reefs have now been expanded enough to accommodate Chinese military hardware and, in at least one case, even an airstrip.