China Cannot Be Expected to Punish North Korea

Chinese tanker soldiers with the People’s Liberation Army. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force

In fact, China might exploit U.S. beliefs about its ability to control North Korea.

Instead, the Trump administration should emphasize military cooperation with its two Northeast Asia allies as a way to pressure North Korea and deny it the ability to successfully target the United States or its allies with nuclear-armed missiles. During the campaign, Trump expressed skepticism about the return on investment from U.S. alliances worldwide, including those with Japan and South Korea. Yet as president-elect, he had positive discussions both with Shinzo Abe and with the now-impeached Park Geun-hye. For instance, he told Park that the United States would “not waver” in its commitments to the ROK. Secretary of Defense James Mattis sent a similarly reassuring message to both allies during a recent trip to the region, while Trump reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the alliance with Tokyo during his inaugural summit with Abe. China’s reluctance to pressure Pyongyang toward denuclearization only increases the value of the alliances with the ROK and Japan in dealing with North Korea.

What types of cooperation should the Trump administration pursue with South Korea and Japan? At a minimum, it should oversee the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in the ROK as planned this year (assuming that the new administration in Seoul supports this decision). The United States and Japan should also continue to improve their missile defense cooperation, following on a successful missile intercept test off Hawaii this month. In addition, Washington, DC should consider expanding intelligence sharing with Tokyo and Seoul, enhancing trilateral policy coordination, selling advanced military hardware and holding robust military exercises on either a bilateral or trilateral basis (such as combined U.S.-ROK-Japan joint antimissile drills). Such activities would frustrate Beijing and could have negative strategic repercussions, such as sparking closer Sino-Russian military cooperation. But these costs are worth the benefit of enhanced deterrence and reducing the threat of nuclear intimidation from North Korea.

This does not mean that China should have no place in U.S. strategy on North Korea. Robust enforcement of existing UN sanctions by China could help to slow North Korea’s nuclear program. China’s assistance is also needed in monitoring DPRK ships suspected of carrying prohibited items, stunting North Korean money-laundering operations and reducing North Korea’s support to terrorist groups. In these areas, United States and Chinese interests are fairly well aligned. After all, many in China are frustrated with Kim Jong-un’s provocations and have been willing to agree to some steps to counter North Korean aggression. Thus, Washington should not rule out cooperation with Beijing, even if it will not resolve the fundamental nuclear problem.

Indeed, China and the United States should initiate cooperation in the area of contingency planning. A sudden collapse of North Korea could bring U.S. forces and Chinese forces into close proximity and raise the immediate question of who will be responsible for securing North Korean weapons of mass destruction. China has been reluctant to discuss these issues out of the belief that doing so would unnecessarily antagonize its neighbor. But the risks of an unintended clash between the U.S. military and Chinese military argue in favor of substantive, though discreet, talks on this subject. Thus, if the new administration desires to exert pressure on China in a useful way, it should be to encourage Beijing to open up about what it will do if the DPRK collapses. As one Chinese interlocutor recently put it, both sides have a stake in avoiding wandering into a “second Korean War.”

Joel Wuthnow is a research fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University. He tweets at @jwuthnow. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Image: Chinese tanker soldiers with the People’s Liberation Army. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force