Speaking with the Financial Times this weekend, US President Donald Trump discussed the perennial dilemma of US-China cooperation on North Korea with his typical bluntness: “China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t. And if they do that will be very good for China, and if they don’t it won’t be good for anyone.” With Chinese President Xi Jinping due to visit Mar-A-Lago later this week, Trump was using the interview to throw down the gauntlet on North Korea, just as he did in a tweet on trade and jobs. The message is simple: cooperate or else!
But cooperate on what? Having publicly rejected the Obama approach of “strategic patience” and hurriedly completed its own policy review, the Trump administration apparently has a new Plan A for dealing with North Korea. US officials told Reuters that the review recommends “a multi-pronged approach aimed at tightening the screws on North Korea economically and militarily.” Trump expects Xi to help him tighten those screws. He told the FT, “China has great influence.” Earlier this year, he told Fox News that China has “complete control” over North Korea.
If Xi refuses to serve as Trump’s wrench, then Trump is threatening Plan B, where he handles Pyongyang “by himself.” He hints that Plan B will be military in nature—he says “it won’t be good for anyone” and he draws an analogy to the assault on Mosul, implying that he would order a surprise attack on North Korea. But these are inferences. Plan B is shrouded in mystery. “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” One is left wondering how something that “won’t be good for anyone” constitutes a solution, and if America can “totally” solve the problem without China’s help, as Trump says, then why doesn’t he just go ahead and do so.
The “strategic distrust” between the United States and China over the Korean issue is profound. Most likely, it will prevent Trump and Xi from making any progress at their upcoming meeting. More optimistically, it is possible that Xi will be able to use the opportunity to nudge Trump in a more constructive direction—of negotiations with Pyongyang—than his administration appears to be heading. But it is also conceivable that Trump will use the Mar-A-Lago tete-a-tete to show off his toughness, in which case concrete progress on the North Korea problem (along with so many other critical issues in US-China relations) will be held hostage to presidential vanity and political posturing.
One thing is clear—Trump sees Beijing as the key to North Korea, but he prefers US-China cooperation on the issue. Ironically, the Chinese government and most Chinese experts would agree that cooperation on this issue is essential. The only catch is that Beijing sees Washington as the key to solving this problem. To understand why this is the case, and why cooperation between the two “great powers” is so elusive when it comes to the Korean peninsula, it is useful to examine widely-held attitudes on both sides.
In Beijing, many doubt that Washington’s actions on the Korean peninsula are truly driven by the goal of denuclearization. There is a widespread belief that the United States is more interested in maintaining its hegemonic role in the Asia Pacific and hedging against the rise of China than it is in “solving” the North Korean nuclear problem. Chinese reason that if Washington were sincere, it would be willing to negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea and offer the “big package” of political normalization and economic assistance, in return for real movement toward denuclearization.
Moreover, they believe the threat posed by North Korea is highly conducive to US efforts to tighten the bolts of its security architecture in Northeast Asia, and strengthen ties with both traditional allies and emerging partners from Japan to Myanmar. Trilateral security cooperation with South Korea and Japan, for example, hinges on the existence of a North Korean threat, as does the push for enhanced missile defense, radar and surveillance, and joint military exercises. China sees the THAAD missile defense system, with its X-band radar, as part of a regional security and surveillance network directed against them, but justified to the South Korean public and international community as a natural response to North Korea’s missile program. Consequently, Beijing views the North Korean threat as an asset to America’s broader regional strategy.
Some Chinese even go so far as to argue that the United States does not actually want the Kim regime to collapse, since it would be difficult to justify maintaining a troop presence in a unified Korea. Others take the view that the US would welcome a spontaneous collapse of the North and the chance to absorb its territory into a US-allied South—though, not being worth fighting a war to achieve. Either way, the status quo of a threatening, isolated, nuclear North Korea is useful to America’s grand strategy for East Asia.
Suspicions about the other side’s motives run just as deep in Washington. Many Americans doubt that China’s goal is really the denuclearization of North Korea. No matter how annoying Kim Jong Un might be, at the end of the day, Beijing sees North Korea as an ally and an asset. At minimum, North Korea is a buffer zone, keeping US forces in the South at a safe distance. Americans also mistrust claims about concern for stability, and the toll that North Korean collapse could take along the 800-mile border with China. Americans argue that a nuclear North Korea is just as, if not more, destabilizing than a collapsed one, and the Chinese are just using ‘stability’ as an excuse to continue propping up the Kim regime.
Some Americans see North Korea as even more than that to the Chinese—it is a ‘card’ that Beijing can play at will, tightening or loosening Kim’s leash as a way to play the Americans, while never doing enough to rein him in. Americans reason that if Beijing were sincere, it would be willing to apply real pain, even to point of risking North Korean regime collapse, in order to raise the costs to Pyongyang of going nuclear.
Strategic distrust, as Wang Jisi and Ken Lieberthal termed it, pervades many areas of Sino-US relations. It should come as no surprise to find especially intense distrust regarding the only place where the two countries fought a war against one another. This underlying mutual suspicion renders it exceptionally difficult for the US and China to cooperate in handling the North Korea issue. When Beijing encourages Washington to lower tensions and resume negotiations with Pyongyang, it is seen as a smokescreen to distract from sanctions efforts. When Washington presses Beijing to enforce sanctions and push Pyongyang back onto the denuclearization track, it is seen as a trick to avoid talks and get China to do the dirty work of ‘regime change.’ Both sides insist to the other that their goal is denuclearization, but neither really believes it. They also disagree on the means to the end goal of denuclearization, with Beijing advocating negotiations and Washington preferring pressure; the tensions run from underlying strategy to diplomatic tactics.
How is this mutual distrust over North Korean denuclearization likely to play out at the upcoming Mar-A-Lago meeting between Presidents Trump and Xi?
Trump seems primed to challenge Xi to use his “tremendous control” over North Korea in order to get Kim to cease and desist from behaving “very badly.” He will likely warn Xi that he will not be “patient” like his predecessor, and that he plans to escalate the counterforce to stop Kim—more financial sanctions, pressure and military deterrence. He might cite the murder of Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia to argue that Kim is dangerous and risk-taking, even “not a rational person.” Trump may explicitly threaten to use force if Kim does not stop improving his nuclear and missile programs—especially an ICBM capability.
Xi can be expected to push back forcefully by telling Trump that the key to solving the nuclear problem is hiding in the White House, not Zhongnanhai. Xi could refer to China’s recent cut-off in coal imports as a way of showing that China is doing its part and is not the hole in the sanctions net; but more importantly, that increasing sanctions does not change Pyongyang’s behavior. Xi is unlikely to defend Kim’s honor regarding Kim Jong Nam’s assassination—indeed, if he is feeling at ease, he might commiserate over the headache of dealing with the young North Korean leader. But Xi will likely argue that the aggressive measures Trump proposes will only make the problem worse. If Trump threatens to play the military option card, Xi may even be so bold as to point out that an attack on North Korea would trigger Article 2 of Sino-Korean Treaty of Mutual Assistance, and would constitute an act of war against not only North Korea, but also China.
When Xi lays out his own views on North Korea, he would likely press Trump to consider the Chinese proposal for a “dual freeze”—North Korea stops nuclear and missile testing in return for the US suspending joint military exercises with South Korea. Beijing’s idea is that a “dual freeze” can create a break in the tension, and in that improved atmosphere, the Washington and Pyongyang can move forward with Beijing’s “dual track” proposal of resuming the denuclearization process while simultaneously opening new talks aimed at converting the 1953 armistice into a permanent peace agreement.
Best Case, Worst Case
Even if Trump and Xi establish some measure of personal rapport at Mar-A-Lago, effective US-China cooperation on a real solution to the North Korean nuclear problem seems as elusive as ever. Trump’s advisors are likely to be as resistant to the ideas of “dual freeze” and “dual track” negotiations as Xi’s team would be toward Trump’s “multi-pronged approach” and “you solve it or else we will” attitude. This first round could be a draw where both sides make their case and neither gives (or gains) much ground. If the Trump administration pursues strategic patience 2.0, as seems to be their plan, then we might have to wait for a new government in Seoul to make another attempt to convince Trump to find a better way forward.
More optimistically, it is possible that Xi will be able to make some progress with Trump on North Korea, especially if things go smoothly in regards to trade. Trump, after all, seems most intent on renegotiating America’s economic relationship with Beijing, and creating the appearance of winning back American jobs that China has allegedly stolen. He might pivot from tough tweets to in-person affection if Xi comes to Florida bearing gifts, offering ways that China can create jobs—or the illusion of jobs—through new investments in the US economy. Chinese officials have been busily preparing their briefs to show how much US companies and consumers already profit from bilateral trade and China’s growth.
For his part, Xi clearly wants a comradely summit, not a lakeside showdown. If Trump bites on Xi’s “win-win” approach to trade and investment, he might also be less aggressive in pushing Xi to crack the whip on North Korea. Xi, in turn, could play up Beijing’s willingness to implement UN sanctions against North Korea, while lobbying Trump to get serious about negotiating a deal with Pyongyang. If the “dual freeze” (suspending joint exercises with the ROK) is a bridge too far, Xi might be able to help Trump brainstorm other things he can trade in order to get at least an initial cap on North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. This would be a best-case scenario for a modicum of cooperation going forward, despite harboring underlying doubts about the each other’s commitment to the ostensibly shared goal of denuclearization. Ironically, Trump would be proven right, if for the wrong reason. The US does not really need China’s help to negotiate with Pyongyang. But perhaps only Xi can help Trump see that fact.
The converse could also apply. If Trump is looking for a fight with Xi to act out his anti-China campaign rhetoric, rally his base and distract from domestic defeats, then there would be spillover effects from the main issue of trade onto everything else, including North Korea. This kind of drama would not be desirable from a Chinese perspective, since Beijing wants a smiling “great power” handshake. But Trump is unpredictable in his interactions with foreign leaders, indulging in confrontational theatrics on the phone and in person even with American allies. In a combative environment, the underlying strategic distrust over the Korean peninsula might bubble to the surface. We might also see a different face of Xi Jinping—the leader who once called the Korean War “a great and just war for safeguarding peace and resisting aggression.” Xi could call Trump’s bluff about “going it alone,” warning that Beijing will not stand by and let Washington do to Pyongyang what it did to Mosul. Summit tension of this sort might make good reality TV, but are not good for international politics.