Trump Has Taken His First Step Toward a Trade Conflict With China

The administration is both coaxing and pressuring the country into cooperating on North Korea. Call it the kitchen-sink strategy.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Candidate Trump might be disappointed in President Trump. On Monday, the man who once promised to label the Chinese government a currency manipulator and impose a 45-percent tariff on Chinese imports, who once accused China of plundering the U.S. economy in the “greatest theft in the history of the world,” directed his top trade official to investigate whether to launch an investigation into whether China is, in fact, a thief, and whether it should be punished. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will now look into allegations that China is stealing technology and intellectual property from U.S. companies. The process could result in the U.S. government retaliating economically against China outside the bounds of the World Trade Organization, where the United States has typically resolved trade disputes in recent decades. “This is just the beginning,” Trump vowed.

The move is tame by 2016 Trump standards, but it’s one of the first steps that the Trump administration has taken toward a broader conflict with China over trade. (In anticipation of Trump’s action this week, the Chinese government warned of the dangers of a “trade war” between the world’s two largest economies.) And it’s a strong signal that as North Korea moves ever closer to being able to place a nuclear warhead on a missile that can reach the United States, the Trump administration is focused on convincing China to crack down on the North’s nuclear-weapons program—using every means of persuasion it can. Call it the throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-China strategy.

Trump administration officials claim that the probe into China’s intellectual-property policies is unrelated to North Korea, but Trump himself has suggested otherwise. “If China helps us [with North Korea], I feel a lot differently toward trade,” the president said last week. The logic, it seems, is that the threat of U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods, along with the threat of U.S. sanctions against Chinese banks and companies that do business with the North Korean government, could force Beijing to sever its lifeline to North Korea, which has a defense treaty with China and depends on China for 90 percent of its trade. Deprived of its only ally, and essential imports such as food and fuel, North Korea might have no choice but to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for economic relief. (In the shorter term, North Korea at least appears to have backed away from a fight with the United States for now, with Kim Jong Un signaling he would not launch missiles toward Guam as he'd implied he might last week.)

The recent twists and turns in the Trump administration’s policy toward North Korea, in fact, can all be understood in the context of this pressure campaign on China. The president and other top officials have experimented with carrots (praising the Chinese government for agreeing to severe new United Nations sanctions against North Korea) and sticks (indicating that the nuclear threat from North Korea is so troubling that the U.S. is willing to unleash a fiery, furious war on the Korean peninsula, right along China’s border, in order to neutralize it).

Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, Trump’s secretaries of state and defense, incorporated this mix of charm, intimidation, and economic coercion into a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Sunday, appealing to China’s pretensions to superpower status while also nodding to the various ways that the United States can project power in China’s neighborhood, including by deploying a missile-defense system in South Korea that the Chinese worry will be turned against their own arsenal.

“The North Korean regime’s actions and the prospect of nuclear proliferation or conflict threaten the economic, political and military security China has worked to build over decades. North Korea’s behavior further threatens China’s long-term interest in regional peace and stability,” Tillerson and Mattis wrote. “Absent China using its influence to show the world how a great power should act to resolve such a well-defined problem as North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range missile capability, others in the region are obliged to pursue prudent defensive measures to protect their people.”

The urgent, unanswered question is which of these carrots and sticks, if any, will alter China’s longstanding calculus on North Korea and align it with America’s. While China and the United States both oppose the Kim regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, they diverge sharply in how they assess and prioritize the threat posed by North Korea. For American leaders, the top concern is that Kim Jong Un may soon have the capability to fire a nuclear weapon at the United States. For Chinese leaders, the top concern is instability in North Korea—that the North becomes another Iraq or Syria—which could produce loose nukes, a humanitarian crisis, and an expansion of America’s military presence at China’s doorstep. At the moment, Chinese officials seem to think that the surest way to destabilize its neighbor is to punish North Korea to the extent that the Trump administration would like, since the Kim government might either collapse or use its nuclear weapons in desperation.

Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, recently told me that China’s economy is too massive and diversified for Chinese leaders to be swayed by limited U.S. sanctions or retaliatory trade measures. He was deeply skeptical that the Trump administration could coax China into fully isolating North Korea. “If China were to abandon all its economic links [with the North], North Korea would still not abandon nuclear weapons,” which the Kim government considers essential to its survival, he explained. “China does not trust that it is able to stop North Korea. Therefore, China is unwilling to do everything it can to stop North Korea.” Nevertheless, Shen argued that Trump’s threats of military action against North Korea had encouraged the Chinese government to halt imports of North Korean coal earlier this year.

In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, David Lai, an expert on China and Korea at the U.S. Army War College, similarly acknowledged the motivating power of the prospect of war on the Korean peninsula. Citing the old aphorism in international relations that “a nation’s immediate neighbor is its natural enemy,” he noted that the Chinese are loathe to do the bidding of the distant United States if it means alienating nearby North Korea. U.S. administrations and their North Korea policies come and go, but the Korean peninsula’s proximity to China persists. “The Koreans and the Chinese have [had] plenty of problems, for centuries,” he said. “The Koreans don’t like the Chinese. The reason they are not at each other’s throats is because Americans are standing in between.”

Yet Chinese leaders also “understand that if North Korea continues this fire-playing thing and actually provokes the United States [to] respond with war, then China cannot be spared,” Lai observed. “China has an interest to prevent this war from happening.”

The Trump administration, in other words, can’t persuade the Chinese government to act against its own interests, but it can try to make the case that compelling North Korea to reverse its nuclear-weapons program is in China’s interests. Doing so, however, requires dramatic measures—edging closer to trade wars and actual wars that no one wants. China would have to be persuaded that the instability it fears is more likely to materialize if it doesn’t threaten Kim Jong Un’s government than if it does.