North Korea: Trump approach tests China’s political skill

Threats of military force can all too easily backfire

 

North Korea has been a thorn in the side of the foreign policy of the United States since 1950 when it launched an invasion of South Korea in the belief the US would not retaliate. That miscalculation should be recalled now that a new US doctrine is being forged to force North Korea to abandon the nuclear weapons it has been working on for nearly 20 years. The Trump administration says it is casting aside President Obama’s “strategic patience” in dealing with the issue and putting all options on the table, including military force. It is a dangerous shift if China refuses to cooperate as Mr Trump assumes will happen.

China receives some 80 per cent of North Korea’s exports and supplies it with most essentials. As a huge neighbouring power it dominates the strategic landscape. But this is not to say China is willing to enforce a much more rigorous sanctions regime. It has recently suspended coal imports and shows signs of implementing other United Nations sanctions more effectively. But these are relatively mild and China has blocked efforts to strengthen them, for example by including a ban on oil exports there.

China has a deep interest in avoiding a collapse of the North Korean regime. That would precipitate Korean unification under South Korean control, bringing a competing model of political and economic development to China’s border. The balance of geopolitical power in East Asia would radically change to China’s disadvantage by empowering Japan and its alliances in the region. US troops would presumably be positioned there too, additional to the 38,000 already deployed in South Korea. Given these scenarios it is not surprising the Chinese are unwilling to ramp up the kind of pressure Trump expects.

China does have to contend with this erratic and unpredictable new US administration, however, and wants to steer it in the direction of political negotiations and away from military threats and postures. North Korea has previously agreed to denuclearise in return for substantial aid. But it is most unlikely to reopen that prospect under Kim Jong-un whose legitimacy depends so much on the nuclear programme. And the sheer asymmetry of power between his regime and the US could tempt him towards a first strike, as his foreign minister has explicitly threatened.

That makes this moment exceptionally volatile and dangerous. If the Trump administration is determined to replace the Obama doctrine of strategic patience with one of strategic ambiguity, it is up to the Chinese to counter that with political skill and finesse on North Korea. That should involve more targeted sanctions on the regime, enhanced regional diplomacy along with South Korea and Japan and more determined efforts to work with the US on trade and economic issues. Threats of military force can all too easily backfire.

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