What Is China’s Angle in North Korea?

Trump can’t rely on Xi’s cooperation. Beijing seems to be using Pyongyang to weaken U.S. influence.


President Trump chats with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 9.
President Trump chats with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 9. PHOTO:ASSOCIATED PRESS

‘Just spoke to President XI JINPING of China concerning the provocative actions of North Korea,” President Trump tweeted last week, referring to Pyongyang’s launch of a missile that may be capable of striking anywhere in the U.S. “The situation will be handled!”

That Mr. Xi will help resolve the crisis on the Korean Peninsula has been Mr. Trump’s expectation since their first meeting at Mar-a-Lago. With America’s Korea policy now seemingly dependent on China’s cooperation, it is time to put the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing into perspective.

Two competing narratives have come to dominate the discussion. In the first, China has no fondness for Kim Jong Un’s regime and is aligned with the rest of the world in viewing it as a threat to peace and stability. But Beijing is constrained. It has less influence with Pyongyang than the world imagines and fears creating a humanitarian catastrophe on the Chinese border. In short, the Chinese share the world’s concerns and would love to do more, but their hands are tied.

In the competing narrative, China has no real interest in pressuring North Korea too forcefully, since it serves as a useful buffer between the Chinese border and U.S. troops in South Korea. Realpolitik dictates that, despite real concern over Pyongyang’s instability and unpredictability, a somewhat erratic ally is immeasurably better than staring at your enemies across the Yalu River. 

Most of the commentary on China’s efforts falls somewhere on the spectrum between these two narratives. But there’s a third possibility—that China has been deliberately allowing tensions on the Korean Peninsula to escalate, if not outright stoking them. More than two decades of U.S.-led diplomacy, sanctions and threats have all failed to halt North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and resulted in only one real casualty: American credibility. The inability of the world’s only superpower to entice, coerce or force a small, impoverished nation to fall into line has undoubtedly been observed by Asian countries weighing whether to align with American or Chinese spheres of influence.

Using North Korea to highlight the limits of American power and influence would fit into a larger Chinese strategy of discrediting U.S. relevance in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite consistent protests from the U.S. and its allies, China has continued to expand and arm its chain of artificial islands in the East China and South China seas. Beijing’s ability to flout a legally binding decision by an international tribunal on a territorial dispute with the Philippines further reinforces the message that the U.S.-led international system is ineffective and irrelevant.

This is not to say that China is actively pulling Pyongyang’s strings. It doesn’t need to. By simply tolerating North Korea’s pursuit of its nuclear agenda, educating its scientists, and providing just enough diplomatic and economic cover to keep the regime afloat, China allows the crisis to fester. As the crisis goads successive American administrations into ever greater displays of impotence, America’s prestige continues to decline.

Skeptics of this theory may point to the “muscular” responses when tensions escalate—the inevitable flyby of U.S. bombers. But American planes come and go, and North Korea’s weapons programs continue their increasingly rapid progress. Much like the “freedom of navigation” operations, in which U.S. Navy ships sail past China’s artificial islands, they are less significant as shows of force than as demonstrations that the U.S. presence is passing, while the Chinese one is permanent.

Mr. Trump’s approach of appealing to China to mediate not only reinforces this message but provides Beijing an opportunity to move beyond influencing perceptions to attempting to roll back America’s actual presence in the region. China has put forward the so-called Dual Freeze proposal, which would halt joint U.S.-South Korean training exercises along with North Korean nuclear development. That would remove a significant pillar of Washington’s military alliance with Seoul, diminishing the decadeslong U.S. commitment in Asia. All while leaving Pyongyang’s current nuclear capabilities intact.

The U.S. response must be to strengthen its alliances, not weaken them. China’s aggressive territorial expansion and the growing North Korean threat have prompted American allies to begin taking independent steps to expand their military capabilities, including arming their own islands. The U.S. should take the lead in coordinating and accelerating these efforts, tying them into a cohesive, multinational effort that rings China and North Korea from Japan in the east to Vietnam and Thailand in the south. 

Although presented explicitly as a response to the threat from North Korean missiles, such an approach would also clearly challenge China’s own ambitions with the outcome that most concerns officials in Beijing—encirclement. It also incorporates an implied economic risk, threatening the shipping lanes from West Asia on which China depends. And unlike ships briefly passing by, this presence would be much more permanent. The message to Beijing would be clear: Curb North Korea’s antagonism, or feel the noose tighten.

North Korea is a nuclear power, and that is not about to change. What must shift is America’s perception of the problem. China enables North Korea’s belligerence as part of a strategy to diminish and ultimately eliminate U.S. influence in Asia and dominate the region. To address it as such, Washington must avoid rewarding Beijing for stoking instability and invert China’s incentives, making it abundantly clear that failure to rein in Pyongyang will increase America’s role in Asia, not decrease it.

Mr. Nidess, a former Marine, is a writer in San Francisco.

Appeared in the December 6, 2017, print edition.

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