The media has been too distracted with what happened (or didn’t) in Sweden and how many days it took Trump to express his feelings about antisemitism to pay much attention to a major announcement by China recently. Beijing said that it would be suspending coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year in response to the expansion of the latter’s testing of an intermediate range missile, part of North Korea’s nuclear armaments program. The test had led the former head of the CIA, R. James Woolsey to warn “Don’t underestimate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal” and that it is “likely more advanced and dangerous than many experts think.”
North Korea badly needs to sell coal in order to earn foreign currency to pay for its imports. Other nations refuse to buy its coal, the sale of which is limited under UN sanctions. This significant move by China unleashed a particularly vitriolic outburst – even by North Korean standards – against China. Pyongyang accused Beijing of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” and “styling itself as a big power.”
The Wall Street Journal points out that China’s decision “Puts heat on the U.S.” One way to look at China’s move is to see it as an invitation for what might be called tit-for-tat diplomacy. We are used to seeing significant changes in international relations that come about following prolonged bilateral or multilateral negotiations, the kinds that led to the Paris agreement on climate change, to the Trans Pacific Partnership, and previously to the START Treaty. Once in a while, however, countries move forward more quickly through unilateral but reciprocal moves. Thus, one side may declare a unilateral ceasefire but honor it only if the other side soon follows suit. A major example of such a tit-for-tat change of course followed President John F. Kennedy’s Strategy for Peace Speech in 1963. That was followed by limited unilateral gestures by the U.S. (e.g., withdrawing its objection to granting full membership status to the Hungarian delegation, calling for reduced trade barriers between East and West, and approving the sale of $250 million in wheat to the USSR), which were reciprocated by the USSR (e.g., withdrawing its objection to Western-backed proposals to send UN observers to Yemen and halting its production of strategic bombers). Several rounds of gestures resulted in a significant reduction in tensions and a major détente in the middle of the Cold War.
So far the Trump Administration has not responded to this significant gesture by China. This may well reflect the fact that its foreign policy team is still being assembled. Moreover, the U.S. has often taken the positon that China ought to twist North Korea’s arm to the point that it would at least freeze, if not roll back, its buildup of nuclear arms and missiles. For example, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter stated last September that “China has and shares important responsibility for this development and has an important responsibility to reverse it. It’s important that it use its location, its history and its influence to further the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and not the direction things have been going.” And Trump said during a presidential debate that “”China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea.”
The idea that China can be shamed or exhorted into taking the very painful moves needed to rein in North Korea is highly unrealistic. Pyongyang’s commitment to its nuclear program is very strong. It sees these weapons as both the source of immense pride and as insurance against foreign forces. (It sometimes points to what happened to Libya and Ukraine when they gave up their nuclear programs, as compared to Iran, which held out.) At the same time, North Korea is highly dependent on China: China supplies North Korea with most of its food and energy and accounts for more than 70 percent of North Korea’s total trade volume. For China to get North Korea to change its ways, it would have to cut off all these and more. China has good reasons to fear the outcome of such a move, which is very likely to lead to the collapse of the North Korean regime, potential leading to millions of North Koreans fleeing into China and – Beijing fears – to the U.S. moving its troops to the border with China, following the reunification of the two Koreas. Shiping Tang, a professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai, has written that China believes there would be a repeat of the sequence following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union when NATO expanded to Russia’s border.
To get China to take painful steps to rein in its only major ally, North Korea, will take exercising some of the “art of the deal” that Trump claims to excel in. In response to the recent significant move by China, the US may for instance state that if North Korea’s missile program is scaled back, the US will postpone the positioning of an anti-missile defense, THAAD, now planned to be stationed in South Korea in 2017. Beijing fears that THAAD could be used against Chinese missiles and thus allow the US to strike China, and China be unable to strike back. And the US could respond by promising not to move its forces north, should the two Korean unify.
In either case, given that there is very wide agreement that the North Korean nuclear program is advancing rapidly and will pose a significant threat to the West Coast of the U.S. and its regional allies in the very near future, a response to China’s move is much needed. The stakes for all concerned are too high to rely on exhortation. It is time now for some real give and take.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. His book Avoiding War with China, will be published by University of Virginia Press in May.