Unburdened by the self-imposed constraints faced by his predecessor, President Trump appears ready to face down North Korea – even if doing so requires confronting China more directly and powerfully than ever before. As he said recently in an interview, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.”
In its latest provocation, North Korea joined our Fourth of July celebrations by successfully testing a long-range missile that it claims can reach “anywhere in the world.” While some doubt North Korea’s boasts, there is no question that the rogue regime has made great strides in developing weapons that threaten not only regional allies like Japan, but the United States as well. The fear is that soon those missiles might be able to deliver a nuclear warhead; some think Pyongyang already has that capability.
How did we get here? For decades, China has played one U.S. president after another, promising to lean on Pyongyang in exchange for a green light on trade cheating, intellectual property theft and other misdeeds.
Most recently, China’s leader Xi Jinping exploited President Obama’s obsession with the Paris climate accord.
When Obama ignored China’s trade violations, cyber intrusions, and adventurism in the South China Sea, it was not in exchange for help in solving the North Korea puzzle; it was payback for signing onto the climate agreement that won Obama plaudits on the international stage. An agreement, it should be said, that served China’s purposes entirely – combatting increased local anger over polluted air and water but requiring no heavy lift on changing its carbon-heavy energy or industrial policy.
Chinese President Xi manipulated Obama perfectly. He saw his desperate need for a “win” on the international front, and delivered one with no teeth and at no cost to China. The Paris accord is a fraud, one that world leaders embrace with the enthusiasm of side-show barkers, desperately hoping no one will peer behind the curtain.
With Trump, Xi had to shift gears. Trump’s exit from the Paris agreement riled liberals who endorse curbing already-declining U.S. carbon emissions at great cost in a world where China’s emissions are twice ours and growing rapidly.
President Xi likely saw it as the severing of a useful cudgel in his dealings with the U.S. True, he can adopt world leadership on the issue, but even climate zealots have to see that China will engage in “green” efforts only when it boosts their bottom line. Making cheap solar panels provides jobs in China, which is useful to Xi. Shutting down coal plants is not. Consequently, China’s coal-burning capacity is forecast to grow by as much as 19 percent in the coming five years to nearly three times as much as the U.S.
Xi had to develop a new bargaining chip for Trump, so he pivoted to helping curb Pyongyang. When the two met at Mar-a-Lago some weeks ago, the Chinese leader parried criticisms over cheating and regional aggression by proffering the usual bland promises to rein in his dangerous neighbor.
But the White House served more than Dover Sole at Trump’s club; they also served up a U.S. strike on Syrian air force planes held responsible for chemical attacks in the country. That bombing raid, announced within minutes of Xi and his wife leaving the banquet table, signaled Trump’s impatience – with Syria, which China quietly backs, and with platitudes about Pyongyang.
Nonetheless, Trump at least publicly accepted China’s proffered help with North Korea, and in return backed off his promise to declare China a currency manipulator. Since that time, however, more revelations about Chinese companies’ engagement with North Korea have come to light, and the fable that Beijing is trying to restrict Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions has been further shredded.
China accounts for 90 percent of North Korea’s trade volume, to the benefit of both. Trade between the two countries soared tenfold from 2000 to 2015 and in the first quarter of this year surged 37.4 percent year-over-year. Does that look like pressure?
Trump is done with the pretense. He tweeted in late June, “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!” While some analysts in the media read the message as another Trumpian about-face, it was seen by others as Trump signaling Xi to push harder.
The White House recently imposed sanctions on a Chinese bank, a shipping company and individuals accused of trading with North Korea. It was the first time the U.S. had used to Patriot Act to apply such restrictions. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said at the time, “We are committed to cutting off all illegal funds going to North Korea."
That is what is needed. According to a recent report from Washington think tank C4ADS, a fairly small number of Chinese companies are responsible for the bulk of trading with North Korea, and even fewer are pivotal to the regime’s nuclear ambitions. For instance, between 2013 and 2016 one firm, Dandong Dongyuan Industrial Co., evidently exported some $28.5 million worth of material to North Korea that might be used for guidance systems for ballistic missiles. The owner of that company is also linked to a ship found to be smuggling 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades made in North Korea into Egypt. Such firms are excellent targets for a ramped-up sanctions effort.
The consensus has long been that China maintains economic ties and resists sanctions on the North because it fears that under pressure the country could collapse, causing refugees to pour across its 870-mile border. Given that China has 2.3 million people in uniform, they could surely protect their border in such an event.
No, China’s coddling of North Korea instead reflects the leverage they have earned from that role, and especially with the U.S. However, there’s a new sheriff in town, one not so determined to give the Chinese a free ride. One who is fed up with Obama’s non-strategic “strategic patience.” High time, too.