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.