The American president may have expected to use his meeting with China’s Xi Jinping on Wednesday to press China to “do more” to address the North Korean nuclear threat. As the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party has just concluded, securing Xi’s place at the top of Chinese politics for at least the next five years, many analysts believe Xi now has more latitude to address the North Korean crisis and to take tougher measures against Pyongyang. In particular, Trump may be hoping to use this opportunity to persuade his Chinese counterpart to finally pull the plug on North Korea by cutting all economic ties and thus forcing Pyongyang to face the ultimate risk of regime collapse. Indeed, in South Korea ahead of his China visit, he called on all countries to cease trade with North Korea. But in China’s case, this is likely to be a dead end. The gap between the Chinese and American views on North Korea is too deep and fundamental, and any illusion it can be bridged in a relatively short period of time through further pressuring Beijing is only setting the two major powers on a path to collision with each other.
The U.S. and China differ over whether international efforts should focus on coercive pressure or diplomatic overture. In large part, this results from their differing views on the nature of the North Korean regime and its trustworthiness as a negotiating partner. Washington and Beijing have genuinely divergent interpretations about Pyongyang’s past behaviors and about what caused the previous negotiations with Pyongyang to fail. Washington accuses Pyongyang of cheating on every agreement ever reached, but Beijing rejects the view that Pyongyang bears the sole responsibility for previous diplomatic failures. As a result, when Washington rejects any deal short of complete denuclearization, and dismisses Pyongyang’s proposals of suspending nuclear and missile tests as tactics for buying time, Beijing believes that a political solution starting with such a freeze still exists and that Pyongyang can be a reasonable negotiating partner.