As President Donald Trump trades threats with North Korea, China is staying idle. Through assertive military exercises and statements, Beijing has warned repeatedly that it could defend North Korea if it is attacked by the United States. Yet at the same time, a series of shifts in China’s military posture near the North Korean border suggest a military increasingly willing to send forceful signals to Kim Jong Un: At times of heightened tensions, the Chinese military appears to be preparing itself for the fall of Pyongyang. Though America cannot know precisely when and how it would intervene, this much is certain: China is prepared to keep the peace on the Korean peninsula—whether the White House likes it or not.
As China says tensions with North Korea are “now at a tipping point approaching a crisis” following its firing of a ballistic missile over Japan, a close look at Beijing’s military signaling reveals that it is quietly working to sharpen the U.S. choice on North Korea. If Trump opts for a military option, he could find himself not only in a damaging war with North Korea but also, potentially, with China. On the other hand, if the United States can set aside his unrealistic military options, China may help to deter the Kim regime from exploiting its new long-range missiles to act aggressively in the region or escalating a crisis already out of control. If China will not help America eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, it may help it to keep it from being used.