President Donald Trump will visit Beijing on November 8, against the background of North Korea’s repeated threat to detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean and an increasing sense of cluelessness among the international community about how to deal with Pyongyang. One thing is certain when Trump meets President Xi Jinping in Beijing: he will push very hard for China to impose stronger pressure on North Korea. However, Trump is unlikely to achieve his goal. There has been a deep and fundamental divergence of views between China and the United States about North Korea’s nuclear ambition and how to deal with the threat. If Trump wants to make his upcoming summit meeting with Xi successful, it is time to take a step back and reflect on his overall approach to solicit China’s cooperation. To start with, he needs to understand why China hasn’t used all its seeming leverage and acted to constrain North Korea to the greatest extent possible.
There is no doubt that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a serious threat to China. Despite the proclaimed special relationship in the past, since the Korean War, North Korea has held deep grievances towards and been distrustful of China. Due to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, the bilateral relationship has continued to deteriorate in recent years. Many Chinese experts worry that, if the relationship turns adversarial one day, China would face another nuclear-armed enemy in its neighborhood. Moreover, North Korea’s persistent pursuit of nuclear weapons is viewed by China as providing a sound excuse for Washington to threaten China’s core security interests by strengthening its security alliances in the region, and by deploying increasingly advanced military capabilities around China, including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. Beijing also believes Pyongyang is handing Tokyo a convenient excuse to revitalize its military, further worsening China’s security environment.
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China has strong incentives, therefore, to constrain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and that is why Beijing has agreed to impose increasingly painful economic sanctions. That said, China also has strong incentives to avoid destabilizing the North Korean regime. As many analysts have observed, China prioritizes regional stability over North Korean denuclearization because China would hate to see its economic development and national rejuvenation disrupted by a regional war that would likely involve China. In fact, even the United States seems to agree that trying to overthrow the regime would be a very risky option that involves too many uncontrollable variables to guarantee a desirable outcome. As a result, most senior U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that Washington only seeks policy change, not regime change.
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However, the dilemma for China is that, for economic sanctions to be effective, they must be sufficiently tough and comprehensive to directly threaten the stability of the North Korean regime. Only something resembling a comprehensive economic embargo that completely cuts off North Korea’s economic lifeline from the outside world could force Pyongyang to recalculate that retaining nuclear weapons actually made it less secure. Anything short of that will further enrage North Korea and have little chance of denuclearizing it. This dilemma of wanting to impose more sanctions on North Korea without threatening the regime challenges the coherence of U.S. sanctions policy. In fact, the U.S. practice of pressing China to do more, without being able to explain the logic and objectives behind imposing additional sanctions, makes Beijing believe that the White House does not have a coherent strategy towards North Korea. For China, the U.S. policy of “strategic accountability” is simply an easy way for Washington to shift the blame and burden onto others and to refuse to face reality by considering more practical but difficult options, such as a negotiated agreement with North Korea. It makes China less willing to do more.
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Moreover, the cost to China of imposing sanctions on North Korea is becoming prohibitively high. In addition to all the loses that China sustains in, for example, stopping imports of North Korean natural resources and the damage done to local economies in the border region, China faces an increasingly serious North Korean threat of retaliation for strangling its economy. Some senior North Korean officials have reportedly stated that their missiles can fly in any direction—a not too subtle reminder that if Beijing continues to take the lead in driving North Korea into a corner, Pyongyang, feeling it has nothing more to lose, can be as ruthless to Beijing as to Washington. To some extent, China is held hostage by a desperate North Korea. Beijing’s economic relationship to Pyongyang is not so much leverage as a liability that it cannot easily rid itself of.
China feels disheartened, not only by the international community’s failure to fully appreciate these costs, but also by the United States appearing to want to coerce Beijing into doing more by undermining China’s security. Some foreign experts acknowledge that the plan to install advanced missile defense systems in the region and the calls for deploying more U.S. strategic military assets to allied countries, including the possibility of reintroducing U.S. nuclear weapons to South Korea, are partially aimed at making China feel uncomfortable and thus forcing China to impose more sanctions against North Korea. This strategy is only encouraging China to take a more confrontational approach towards these countries and to become less cooperative with them on North Korea.
In recent years, China has agreed to impose increasingly tough sanctions because it wants to be cooperative, but that does not mean China agrees with this approach of addressing the North Korean nuclear crisis. China’s own historical experience of successfully resisting long-standing economic sanctions without giving up its own nuclear weapon program makes China much more skeptical than other countries about the efficacy of economic sanctions. The similarities between the political ideologies and systems in China during the Cold War and in North Korea today also convince Chinese decisionmakers that they understand the thinking and mindset of their North Korean counterparts better than Western politicians. Chinese leaders believe that economic sanctions only increase North Korea’s threat perception and make it less likely to denuclearize.
As North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs accelerate, Washington wants to broaden the scope of economic sanctions with the ultimate goal of threatening the stability of North Korea’s economic system. Yet, the room for China to impose additional sanctions in the future without cutting off North Korea’s economic lifeline and hence undermining its regime is quickly disappearing. The current model of Washington-Beijing cooperation on pressuring North Korea is quickly approaching a dead end. When President Trump becomes disappointed about the ineffectiveness the new sanction measures in UN Security Council Resolutions 2371 and 2375, U.S. discontent will fuel a direct bilateral struggle between Washington and Beijing.
To avoid this outcome and to facilitate continued cooperation, the two countries need to shift focus away from arguing about specific tactics—such as what additional items should be included in the next round of trade sanctions—and towards reconciling their different overall strategies. The current U.S. strategy of imposing “maximum pressure” and the Chinese strategy of addressing North Korean threat perceptions through engagement are mutually conflicting. Without some basic common ground on strategy, substantive and sustainable cooperation is unlikely.
Washington and Beijing have so far embraced different strategies because they have divergent understandings on a range of key issues about North Korea. Besides their different views about the efficacy of economic sanctions, another major difference is over their beliefs about what North Korea seeks to achieve with nuclear weapons, and whether it can be deterred from using them. China believes North Korea’s nuclear program is to safeguard regime survival; its leaders have no interest in starting a suicidal nuclear war and can be deterred from using its nuclear weapons for aggressive purposes. As a result, China is more willing to consider the option of allowing North Korea to retain its existing nuclear capabilities for now while negotiating a step-by-step agreement to gradually denuclearize in the long run. But many U.S. experts believe North Korea will attempt to threaten nuclear use coercively for more offensive objectives, including by attempting to drive U.S. forces out of South Korea and forcing South Korea into reunifying on North Korean terms. Moreover, senior U.S. officials have expressed concerns about Pyongyang not just threatening but actually using its nuclear missiles. As a result, Washington is less interested in considering more practical near-term agreements such as capping and freezing North Korea’s capabilities.