Since the presidents of both the United States and China met back in April of this year, China has repeatedly indicated willingness to change its approach in dealing with North Korea and its highly controversial nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The new U.S. ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, has said that stopping the threat posed by North Korea will be a top priority for the United States under the Trump administration, along with resolving the long-existing disparity in the U.S. current account with China. The United States 2016 trade deficit with China was close to $347 billion, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, and this deficit was a major campaign element during Trumps run for the presidency in 2016.
Soon after their meeting, Trump said that he had told Chinese President Xi that China would get a better trade deal if it did more to help with mitigating the North Korean threat. The Chinese government in sum asked the United States to remove its THAAD missile battery that is currently deployed in central South Korea, as well as requesting some leniency concerning the proposed U.S. actions regarding its trade deficit. Earlier this year, when Trump and Xi met at Mar-a-Lago in April, China had asked for and received a 100 day grace period to modify its North Korea policy; a grant that is soon to reach expiration.
China has long been North Korea’s most important ally, and maintains close ties to the Kim regime who has been in control of the country since the Korean War. China has done a great deal over the years in helping the regime circumvent the full extent of the sanctions inflicted on it by the International community, resultant from North Koreans conduct in the realm of international security and vast domestic human rights violations.
The U.S. secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, pointed out that he hopes China will do its part in helping to put an end to a “number of criminal enterprises” that enable North Korea to earn foreign currency in order to sustain itself. China has also been rumored to host firms that make arms exports to North Korea, along with other forms of direct material support for the regime and its military. Given that China controls close to 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade, and also provides the country with vital aid including shipments of subsidized fuel, the expectations seem reasonable.
Most recently, China has agreed to cut the influx of petroleum to North Korea, along with a few other petty concessions, as an attempt to appease the United States in its endeavor of further isolating the country from the international community and force its compliance with international norms.
The United States and China are ultimately not on the same page when it comes to their North Korea policy. The United States sees a nuclear North Korea with ballistic missile capabilities as a top national and international security priority. The long existing U.S. strategy in dealing with the North Korean threat has been a form of containment, with the eventual objective ultimately being to depose the Kim regime, and enable a reunification of the Korean Peninsula to ensure the security and stability of the region.
China, on the other hand, seeks to uphold the status quo and maintain the stability of its eastern border by not allowing the Kim regime to collapse. A regime collapse would leave a void in North Korea that could potentially cause a mass refugee crisis, along with significant security issues for China. The loss of one of its immediate peripheral satellite states, and its strong potential alignment with the United States and its allies, would compromise the security of China’s eastern border and lead to a significant military buildup on that border as a preventive buffer strategy for China.
China has long advocated for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, while the U.S. has said that another armed conflict with North Korea is a very real possibility, but would be “tragic” should it occur. The massive, fundamental difference in each country’s North Korea policy is likely going to hamper any real progress in bilaterally dealing with the North Korea question. The only real outcome so far is China and the U.S. having come to agreement on the need for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. But this broad declaration, with no specifics on how to achieve it, is just what China wants in keeping the American’s at bay for the time being.