China's reluctance to adopt tougher economic measures has President Donald Trump itching for new options, but few exist
President Donald Trump, like his predecessor, has hinged U.S. attempts to curtail North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs on China.
Those efforts so far have been short on returns, with Trump acknowledging the uphill battle he faces.
“I am very disappointed in China,” the self-proclaimed dealmaker fumed on Twitter on July 29, one day after the North carried out a second Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) test within a month.
“Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!”
Since Trump expressed “great confidence” that Chinese President Xi Jinping will be able to “properly deal” with North Korea in April, the North has carried out nine ballistic missile tests.
Those are in addition to four other missile tests since Trump assumed office in January.
The U.S. has maintained that China has unique ways in which it can apply pressure to Pyongyang due primarily to its hefty economic footprint in the North.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said China accounts for 90 percent of economic activity with North Korea.
So far, Beijing has been reluctant to leverage that influence to stave off future ballistic missile or nuclear tests.
Key to understanding why China has not taken a more assertive stance against its neighbor is acknowledging the worst-case scenario for Beijing in North Korea is very different than the one feared by U.S. officials.
The status quo on the Korean Peninsula is better than “just about anything the Chinese can contemplate”, James Clad, a former top Pentagon official for Asia Pacific security told Anadolu Agency.
“The collapse of the regime is not something China wants,” he said. “Reunification under the South, who would inherit the nuclear weapons capability, and perhaps retain American forces there, that would not be something China would want.”
If, as Tillerson claims, China is responsible for nearly all foreign economic activity in North Korea, then restricting that vital flow could have far-reaching consequences for the government there as it seeks to keep afloat an already-hobbled economy.
Still, Clad points to a possible ratcheting up of targeted U.S. sanctions on Chinese entities as a potential way to force China’s hand.
But the rigor with which Washington seeks to apply the economic penalties in China’s state-controlled economy could backfire.
“It’s a question of how we play it,” said Clad, who served under President George W. Bush.
Over-applying sanctions could lead Beijing to seriously curtail its $650 billion trade with Washington, which would damage U.S. business and market interests, or make China’s economy too risky for U.S. investment.
“When you talk about measures like somehow shutting off trade, or creating major sanctions, the fact is the United States has a very high degree of economic interdependence with China, and it’s not quite clear how this is going to work out first in ways that benefit the United States,” said Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
And with a twice per decade Chinese Communist Party gathering approaching this fall, Xi will likely refrain from any action that could appear to be “kowtowing to the Americans”, Clad said.
Absent an unlikely shift in Beijing’s enthusiasm to restrict its economic activity in the North, sanctions sought by Washington are unlikely to have the intended about-face from North Korea.
That leaves U.S. policymakers with the unsavory choice of military action to thwart North Korea's programs, waiting out the increasingly certain outcome of a nuclear-armed hostile government, or again pursuing direct talks with North Korea in the hopes they are more fruitful than the litany of past failed attempts.
Should the U.S. choose the military option, Seoul, the South Korean capital that sits near the border with the North, would likely sustain major damage as well as other parts of the country.
Moreover, it's not clear to what extent China is willing to commit its forces to end U.S. military action.
In its congressionally mandated annual assessment of China's military capabilities, the Pentagon noted "China’s leaders remain focused on developing the capabilities to deter or defeat adversary power projection and counter third-party intervention -- including by the United States -- during a crisis or conflict".
Beijing's military modernization efforts are targeted at degrading essential "U.S. military-technological advantages", the Pentagon said.
Ultimately, however, "no one wants to start a major war in the Korean Peninsula," remarked Cordesman.
Michael Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006-2009, said last year he believes that left unchecked, North Korea's nuclear and ballistic programs could result in Pyongang’s leaders having an offensive nuclear weapons program capable of hitting the U.S. west coast by the end of Trump’s term.
Seattle, the city Hayden said could potentially be targeted, would be devastated by a nuclear missile if it managed to evade U.S. defenses.
And experts have cautioned the Hwasong-14 missile test July 29 appears to demonstrate a capability to hit major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, and potentially New York and Boston.
David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the weight of the payload of the test remains unknown, and would affect the reach of the missile should it be fired at the U.S.
"If it was lighter than the actual warhead the missile would carry, the ranges would be shorter than those estimated above," he wrote.
Can or will?
But having an offensive nuclear capability and the willingness to use it are two different things entirely.
As Cordesman put it: “From a practical viewpoint, North Korea’s choices, to put it mildly, are radically different in terms of the losses it would have to take to ever actually use any of these systems.
“The threat of committing suicide is not quite a threat you’d really want to use in intimidating another country,” he said.
Moreover, the U.S. has devoted considerable resources to developing a missile defense shield capable of nullifying such a threat even as questions loom over its effectiveness.
Ultimately, the point of the North's program may have little to do with its leaders' bellicose claims of destroying the U.S., and far more to do with developing a counter-measure to stave off any potential U.S. military action.
“What are they going to do actually? Use these things? They would be annihilated," said Clad, the former Pentagon official. "The point is to guarantee the survival of the regime.”