So far, the Trump administration’s North Korea policy consists of declaring that America’s patience has run out, refusing to negotiate, hinting at preventive war, and hoping that China bails it out. In January, Trump—who is perpetually learning things that most other people know and then congratulating himself for having discovered them—announced that China has “total control over North Korea.” This month, after meeting China’s leader, he announced that “it’s not so easy” for Beijing to force Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program. Still, he tweeted that “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea.”
Barely anyone else does. Barely anybody familiar with the relationship between the two countries believes China’s leaders will make North Korea denuclearize just because Trump tells them to. Yes, China wants to calm Trump down so he doesn’t start World War III. And yes, China considers North Korea both embarrassing and infuriating, the geopolitical equivalent of a childhood friend who keeps borrowing money and getting drunk in front of your wife and kids. Nonetheless, China has excellent reasons not to do as Trump says.
China wants stability on its border. The United States is fond of violently bringing down dictators half a world away, but when those dictatorships turn into failed states, it’s their neighbors that suffer the consequences. Beijing doesn’t want to experience what Jordan endured after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Trump is demanding that China pressure North Korea—perhaps by cutting off its food and fuel until Kim Jong Un scuttles his nuclear program. But China is less afraid of a North Korean nuclear explosion than a North Korean political implosion, which would send refugees cascading across its border. China also fears that North Korea’s collapse will lead to a reunification of the Korean Peninsula on South Korean and American terms. That could leave U.S. troops on China’s border for the first time since 1950, when Beijing went to war to chase them away.