Even Donald Trump, who once tweeted his appreciation for China’s help on North Korea and then followed a few months later with a tweet that said “so much for China helping us on North Korea”, can’t seem to decipher whether China can or will actually help handle North Korea. I’ve read opinions from just about every perspective, including one that said China wouldn’t mind if the US suffered a nuclear blow. To be honest, I thought that was a step too far.
There are quite a few variables at play in this diplomatic drama. Below I summarize the main factors that influence the role China can play, hopefully helping readers draw their own conclusions. In the end, I let you know which factor I think is most critical. Spoiler alert: Give THAAD a chance!
North Korea: Buffer vs. Eliminated
The best place to start is to note that the US and China have very different strategic interests relative to North Korea. Most importantly, the US would like nothing better than for North Korea to no longer exist. China prefers that North Korea exists as a buffer between itself and the 30,000 American troops stationed in America’s ally, South Korea. This is a huge difference in goals.
Avoiding a refugee crisis
A related point is that China would rather avoid the need to manage the crisis that would emerge should North Korea’s 25 million people, desperately poor and backward, many living on the edge of starvation permanently, need to flee the country into China.
Making sanctions work is difficult
North Korea has taken steps over the last few years to broaden trade with China, specifically allowing China to take advantage of North Korea’s extremely low wages. Trade in garments and other labor intensive products can help sustain North Korea far more than in the past. Shutting down the trade requires fairly intensive effort to shut the border with N. Korea. This extra effort means China needs extra motivation.
Thorn in side vs. Presence in Pacific
Since North Korea’s weapons are pointed at the US, not China, some would suggest that the Chinese are not incentivized to solve the North Korea problem. Instead, the argument goes, China would prefer to keep North Korea as a thorn in America’s side. There is a flip side to this argument. Largely because China would like to be the dominant force in the Pacific, China would prefer the US to have a smaller defensive posture in the region. As long as North Korea remains a menace, America’s presence in the region, and the strength of its alliances, will not weaken. Both sides of this argument make some sense so, on this point, it is difficult to say which way China would lean.
Trading Trade for North Korea
Donald Trump has said he would reward China for better handling of North Korea by backing off some of his demands relative to trade. China has signaled it would rather keep trade and North Korea separate.
I think the threat of linking trade to North Korea will not force China to do anything it doesn’t already want to do for two reasons. First, the issues at stake with North Korea relate to national security, which China (and most countries) would assign a much higher priority than any single economic issue. Secondly, and most importantly, China, via the threat of trade retaliation, is likely confident it already has as much leverage as it needs relative to trade. That is not to say that China would “win” a trade war. But they could inflict economic pain on the US just at the US could do to China. That’s all the leverage China needs.
Peaceful rise: Force for good in the world
National pride is important to most countries, none more than China. As a great power that was broken apart by the “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers, the Chinese are eager to resume their natural place of leadership on the world stage. Being best friends with world’s reigning nuclear crazy guy isn’t exactly good for China’s global rep. In opposition to the US, China has always championed the idea of “non-interference” in other countries. But as China’s own economic tentacles spread around the world, it is finding it more difficult to stay uninvolved, as is witnessed by its first overseas military base and its participation in peacekeeping forces. Power and influence bring responsibility. If China wants other countries to trust its growing influence, helping disarm a country no one likes would be a big step in the right direction.
THAAD: Missile Defense
Nothing motivates like self-interest. China rightly sees missile defense systems installed by America’s allies in the region to be detrimental to China’s own defense posture, even if those systems are ostensibly aimed at North Korea. When South Korea bought 6 advanced, THAAD missile defense systems from the US, China protested so vehemently that South Korea only installed two of the systems. Due to North Korea’s recent actions, South Korea has restarted installation. Japan is also considering enhancing its own anti-missile capability.
In my opinion this is by far the most direct and compelling reason for China to be proactive in disarming North Korea—to prevent the spread of anti-missile systems in its own backyard. Therefore, the most important thing the US and its allies can do is to continue to expand missile defense capabilities and then to trade that capability for the disarming of North Korea. All of the factors above are at play here, but none is as critical as China’s own national security. If you want to push China in the right direction, nothing beats THAAD.