China Is Flunking Its Most Important Geopolitical Test

Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China cannot keep dangling the bait of “cooperation” on North Korea’s threat and expect the world to bite.

Past presidents have sought Beijing’s cooperation to deal with Pyongyang, but among a myriad of other U.S.-China topics with a sense of “business as usual.” Under President Donald Trump, the United States is leading overdue, intense pressure against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) by placing its threat as the top priority in dealing with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Trump already hosted PRC ruler Xi Jinping for an early, cozy summit. The PRC has unique, overwhelming leverage against the DPRK. China should use its well-honed tactics of applying incremental pressure to stop the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs, which would prove its willingness to impose unilateral sanctions against other countries. China’s coercion has been portrayed by the image of “salami slicing,” especially to expand claims in the South China Sea. So is China meeting or failing the latest test on North Korea?

No Longer Business as Usual

Briefing reporters in early April the upcoming visit of Xi Jinping to meet with Trump, an unnamed senior official of the administration said that its new “results-oriented” approach to the U.S. engagement with China focuses on urgent cooperation on North Korea. After about two decades of U.S. efforts of counting on China’s cooperation to bring about a safe and denuclearized Korean Peninsula, this current try is “a test of the relationship” with China, according to the official. The official also pointed out that almost 90 percent of North Korea’s external trade is with China, so even if China’s political influence might have diminished with North Korea, China’s economic leverage clearly has not diminished.

In an extraordinary briefing for the whole Congress on April 26, the Secretaries of Defense and State, Director of National Intelligence, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned that “North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is an urgent national security threat.” They briefed Congress on a new review of policy concerning the DPRK. They noted that past efforts have failed to halt the DPRK’s unlawful weapons programs as well as nuclear and missile tests.

The U.S. Pacific Command’s Commander, Adm. Harry Harris, testified bluntly to Congress: “Kim Jong-un has stated repeatedly that denuclearization is not an option. He is on a quest for nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles capable of delivering them intercontinentally. The words and actions of North Korea threaten the U.S. homeland and that of our allies in South Korea and Japan.”

Furthermore, at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican Senator John McCain warned that the DPRK poses a “real and rising risk of conflict.” He noted that, for years, the United States has looked to China, the DPRK’s patron, to bring the regime to negotiate a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. He said that China is the only country with influence on North Korea but has refused repeatedly to exercise that influence. He pointed out that “China has aided and abetted North Korea for decades.” According to the senator, the administration should seek China’s cooperation but not at the expense of vital interests such as alliances and freedom of the sea.

McCain also said that the White House is not recklessly considering a preemptive strike against the DPRK but “exploring every option and the last option—and the least desirable option—is armed conflict.”

Trump warned starkly in late April that “there is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.” He also expressed his belief that Xi Jinping is “trying very hard.”

The administration seems willing to test China. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that “in the past, the assumption has been the Chinese would only take limited action. We’re going to test that assumption. We’re going to test their willingness to help us address this serious threat that is not only one to the region and to us, but is becoming a threat to China themselves.” He said that Beijing asked Pyongyang not to conduct another nuclear test and warned that regime about China’s unilateral sanctions in the event of such a test.

Still, the United States is no longer patient. Secretary Tillerson told the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on April 28 that “this new pressure campaign will be swiftly implemented and painful to North Korean interest” given the “catastrophic effects of a North Korean nuclear strike.” Within hours, North Korea underscored that urgent warning by defying international pressure with a ballistic missile test (that failed and blew up over North Korean territory).