President Donald Trump’s bromance with Chinese president Xi Jinping has yielded few practical results. To the contrary, U.S.-Chinese relations increasingly seem headed for rough waters.
Nothing has been resolved on economic issues, so Washington is rolling out another set of trade penalties. Beijing appears to be abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s old policy of patience and is moving ever closer to political and military confrontation with Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) also continues to aggressively press its expansive territorial claims in the Asia-Pacific; in response, the U.S. Navy ran another Freedom of Navigation Operation a few days ago.
Then there is North Korea. Last year the president blamed the PRC for not doing enough to pressure the North, before thanking President Xi for his efforts. But after the North’s recent angry eruption, or “different attitude,” as President Trump put it, he appeared to again blame China: “I think I understand why that happened,” said President Trump, but “I can’t say that I’m happy about it.” He went on to cancel, perhaps only temporarily, the planned summit with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.
Apparently the president believed that Kim was ready to toss away his nuclear weapons, and who knows what else, until President Xi summoned Kim to Beijing and issued contrary instructions. (John Bolton highlighting the “Libya model,” which made possible that government’s overthrow, twinned with the president’s and vice president’s threats of military action, are far more likely culprits for Pyongyang’s shift.)
President Trump is not the only one to assume that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was China’s puppet. Sen. John McCain once urged threatening the entire U.S.-PRC relationship if Beijing did not rein in the North. More recently Joseph Bosco, who served in the Bush Defense Department, charged China with “blatant sabotaging of the promising dialogue” between the United States and North Korea (DPRK).
Matthew Continetti of the Free Beacon argued that “the two governments function in a close alliance. North Korea would not exist without Beijing’s support.” Indeed, he added, “We don’t have a North Korea problem. We have a China problem. North Korea is a wild dog—China holds the leash. To change North Korea’s behavior, change Chinese behavior first.”
In fact, Pyongyang is resisting administration demands because Kim believes they are not his nation’s, or at least his regime’s, interest. From the beginning the DPRK has resolutely resisted foreign pressure. Long ago even the PRC discovered the limits of its influence in the North.
Beijing wants a stable, docile, non-nuclear Korean buffer state. That would enhance China’s regional influence, prevent the peninsula from being used as a tool of containment, spark allied requests for Chinese help to “manage” the North, and preserve a relationship with both historical and ideological significance. In contrast, a nuclear DPRK ensures Pyongyang’s independence, including from the PRC, and generates American complications.
Unfortunately for Beijing, its buffer state was always unruly and recently went nuclear. Until recently, at least, the Chinese leadership decided that buffer took precedence over nuclear. Especially since the PRC’s influence in the North was substantially more limited some observers assumed. The Beijing-Pyongyang relationship was not unlike America’s support for brutally repressive regimes—think Egypt or Saudi Arabia today—which nevertheless were believed to advance other U.S. interests.
North Korea was birthed by the intersection of World War II and the Cold War. The Soviets occupied the northern half of the Korean Peninsula, chose Kim Il-sung as leader of what became the new state and okayed his plans for war. America intervened in the ensuing conflict and its forces soon threatened to overrun the DPRK. Only Mao Zedong’s decision to confront the United States—to protect the PRC, not North Korea—preserved Kim’s rule.
The cost was high: among the hundreds of thousands of Chinese casualties was Mao’s son. But Kim offered few thanks to China. Even today the Victorious Fatherland War Museum suggests that it was Kim, plus a few courageous North Korean soldiers, who almost defeated the American imperialists, South Korean puppets and allied satellites. When visiting last year I saw no monuments to Chinese soldiers.
Along the way to absolute power Kim crushed the pro-China faction, over the PRC’s protests. He played Moscow against Beijing, criticizing both Khrushchev, who had denounced Stalinism, and Mao, who had opposed Kim turning a nominally Communist state into a de facto monarchy. Only out of necessity did Pyongyang maintain a civil relationship with the PRC after the latter established diplomatic relations with Seoul.
Since then the relationship between the two supposed allies has oscillated, but generally grown increasingly strained. For years the PRC pressed its small neighbor to follow China in adopting economic reforms, while eschewing production of nuclear weapons. Kim Jong-il, who took over from Kim Il-sung in 1994, did the opposite. Kim Jong-un succeeded his father in December 2011 and seemed more interested in economic development, but accelerated nuclear and missile testing. Moreover, five years ago he executed his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was his nation’s principle interlocutor with Beijing. Jang was accused of making improper deals with an unnamed country—but whose identity was not difficult to guess.