President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to take a brief congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen is turning into one of those unprecedented diplomatic developments where the aftermath proves to be more significant than the actual event. Just as President Obama took a chance by talking with an Iranian president directly for the first time since 1979, Trump’s communication with the leader of Taiwan is historic not because of what the two talked about, but rather for the fact that it happened at all.
Fortunately for both the incoming Trump administration and an Obama administration that has less than two months to finish its work, Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party hierarchy have chosen to focus most of their anger over the Trump-Tsai dialogue on the Taiwanese instead of the Americans. Xi undoubtedly realizes that sending relations between Washington and Beijing into a tailspin over a ten-minute phone call is a bridge too far, and would have consequences as hurtful to China’s national-security interests as what the United States would experience. Indeed, China’s relatively benign reaction has convinced some Asia hands that the United States should take the opportunity to go a step further, perhaps no longer treating Taiwan as a subsidiary to be avoided due to overly dramatic Chinese sensitivities.
However, if the United States is willing to play the Taiwan card in order to bring the Chinese down a peg, is in incomprehensible that Beijing would take such humiliation lying down. In fact, China could very well escalate in response by playing the North Korea card—a problem that Washington has shown itself powerless to tame without some buy-in from the Chinese political leadership.
Here are three ways that China could unleash North Korea if the Trump administration doesn’t back down on Taiwan:
1. No More Security Council Resolutions
Given the isolation of North Korea’s economy, unilateral and Western-led economic sanctions regimes against Pyongyang are all but useless. The Security Council has therefore been the go-to arena over the past twenty-five years for U.S., European and Asian officials whenever the North Koreans have lashed out or done something that merits a strict reprimand. Whenever Pyongyang tests another missile or improves the yield of its nuclear testing, the Security Council inevitably holds emergency meetings to discuss the issue. Twice this year, the Security Council has passed a raft of economic restrictions and export bans on profitable North Korean industries that U.S. officials have called the most stringent in UN history—and China has been willing to not only play ball with those efforts, but also be a proactive participant in the UN negotiations.
The Security Council’s effectiveness on North Korea, though, is only as good as the unity of its permanent member states. Once that unity is challenged or strained due to changes in policy that a permanent member may label as a slight or a provocation, the Security Council’s work has a habit of grinding to a halt on any file that smacks of controversy.
If Washington begins to regularize the invitation of Taiwanese ministers to official U.S. government functions, authorizes the travel of senior U.S. officials to Taiwanese soil, or even arranges—let alone holds—face-to-face meetings between Trump and Tsai on the sidelines of various Asian summits, the Chinese will have no compunction or hesitancy in using their veto power to block more sanctions packages against North Korea. One could call such retaliation a childish eye-for-an-eye, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Throwing sand in the gears at the UN on anything and everything related to the DPRK could be just the right amount of tough medicine to get Washington to back off.
2. Ignore DPRK Sanctions Altogether
If last March’s resolution was a sniper shot to the gut of North Korean exports, then Resolution 2321, passed with Chinese cosponsorship last month, is practically a meat cleaver to the DPRK’s small economy. UN member states are prohibited from exporting, importing, or transiting in dual-use items to or from North Korea; member states are required to downsize North Korean consulates and diplomatic posts on their territory; DPRK coal exports are capped at $400.8 million starting on January 1, 2017; and North Korean copper, zinc, silver and nickel can no longer be exported. Combine all of these measures, and conservative estimates point to a loss of $700 million in DPRK reserves per year.
But like all past Security Council resolutions levied against the Kim dynasty, Resolution 2321 will only produce its desired effect if every provision is implemented without exception. Argued another way, if Beijing doesn’t adhere to the very resolution it helped craft with the United States over a period of months, the Kim regime will be able to withstand the extreme severity of the export caps. China has demonstrated repeatedly that, while it would like to see a denuclearized Korean Peninsula next door, it is far more interested in the immediate stability of the area. A denuclearized Korean Peninsula means nothing to the Chinese if that denuclearization comes at the price of millions of desperate North Koreans streaming across the Yalu River, the collapse of a North Korean regime that has kept U.S. soldiers below the thirty-eighth parallel, and the establishment of a unity government more in tune with U.S. preferences and priorities.
If these are the worries that the Chinese have when U.S.-China relations are normal, imagine what extra incentive Beijing would possess if Washington ruffled feathers by implementing a more Taiwan-friendly policy.
3. China Changes Its DPRK Policy Completely
If the Trump administration attempts to fiddle with the series of joint communiqués that have served as official U.S. policy on the Taiwan issue for nearly four decades, the Chinese could conceivably take a far more extreme position on Korean denuclearization. This is more possible than one would think; despite China’s preference that North Korea eliminate its nuclear program through peaceful means in exchange for security guarantees from the United States, Beijing has been coexisting with a nuclear-armed North Korea on its border for the last ten years. Indeed, China’s strategic position in the Asia-Pacific hasn’t been especially hurt by an active DPRK nuclear-weapons program; if anything, the North Korean nuclear issue has provided Beijing with more leverage over the United States than it would have had if Kim Jong-un behaved like an outstanding citizen.
Although official acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state would certainly be a complete 180-degree turn for the Asian superpower, a more extensive and formalized U.S.-Taiwanese relationship would be perceived as such a dire threat to China’s national security that a policy reversal on the DPRK wouldn’t be out of the question.
For now, Donald Trump and his advisers are describing the phone call with Tsai Ing-wen as just a friendly chat with a fellow democratically elected leader. Before Trump accepts the advice of China hawks in his national-security team (of whom there will be many), he should determine what his priorities should be—and it what order. Is advocating for a more assertive Taiwan on the international stage or greasing the skids for Taipei’s possible independence more important to stability in the Pacific than preventing North Korea’s irreversible path into the nuclear club? Is it worth throwing bilateral U.S.-China relations into a crisis? And do the benefits of a deeper U.S.-Taiwan partnership outweigh the costs of the destruction of America’s North Korea policy over the past quarter century?
Daniel R. DePetris is an analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., a geostrategic consulting firm, and a freelance researcher. He has also written for CNN.com, Small Wars Journal and The Diplomat.
Image: A Republic of Korea soldier during an amphibious assault as part of Exercise Foal Eagle ’02. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain