Even President Trump’s newfound and well-advertised friendship with Xi Jinping may not be enough to overcome the sharp differences between the United States’ and China’s goals on North Korea.
While the American president has been full of praise for the Chinese leader ever since their Mar-a-Lago summit in early April, those differences surfaced publicly in a contentious United Nations Security Council session Friday. The back-and-forth was striking because it occurred during a meeting designed by the U.S. to show global unity on the most acute crisis of the day.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who presided over the proceedings, demanded more pressure on the Kim Jong Un regime. He called for more isolation, more sanctions, and, yes, “all options,” including military. “Diplomatic and financial levers of power will be backed up by a willingness to counteract North Korean aggression with military action if necessary,” he said.
For China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, preventing the military option is the highest priority. He noted that Security Council resolutions not only call for the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, but also for the renewal of diplomatic talks, frozen for nearly a decade.
“We must stay committed to the path of dialogue and negotiation,” Wang said. “The use of force does not solve differences and will only lead to bigger disasters.”
To be sure, several diplomats said Tillerson and Wang, in a departure from their public speeches, showed much more unity of purpose at a private luncheon afterward at the U.S. mission to the United Nations, with foreign ministers and ambassadors in attendance.
Yet the contentious public exchanges between the United States, the United Kingdom, and France on one side, and Russia and China on the other, betrayed deeper differences, according to several regional observers, diplomats, and officials.
Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Susan Thornton described the apparent divide as a “difference in emphasis.” Concerned about a long border with North Korea, Beijing is focused on preventing a boil-over of tensions and stressing a peaceful resolution of the conflict, she said.
The Chinese “have a mantra that they use, which is ‘no war, no chaos, no nukes’—the three no’s,” Thornton told The Daily Beast. “And it’s not accidental that the ‘no chaos’ and ‘no war’ come as the first two and the ‘no nukes’ at the end.”
The U.S. sees the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs as a top issue that could soon threaten the U.S. itself.
True: North Korea’s mid-range ballistic missile test Friday was described by South Korea’s government as a “failure,” but practice makes perfect. Pyongyang’s missile program—designed not only to threaten neighbors like Japan and South Korea with nuclear arms soon but also eventually to widen the threat to the continental United States—is progressing at a rapid pace.
Which, for the U.S., puts time at a premium. “The more we bide our time, the sooner we will run out of it,” Tillerson told the council Friday. The “strategic patience” policy of the Obama administration is over, he added.
The kind of diplomatic talks that started during the Clinton presidency and have showed little results since then may not be the best way to end the crisis, and certainly would get there slowest, Thornton said.
“We are looking to not negotiate our way to the negotiation table. We are not willing to talk just to talk,” she said.
While the secretary of state noted that since 1995 the U.S. has provided more than $1.3 billion in aid to North Korea, he said those funds will start flowing again only after Pyongyang “begins to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile technology programs.”
In his speech, TIllerson indicated that China, as Pyongyang’s top patron, “accounting [for] 90 percent of North Korea’s trade,” can do much more to pressure its ally. He even suggested, and not so subtly, that the U.S. can go after Chinese firms and banks that do business with the North, saying, “We will not hesitate to sanction third country entities and individuals supporting the DPRK’s illegal activities.”
Wang, for his part, pushed back against the idea that China is in a unique position to do more to pressure North Korea. “China is not a focal point of problems on the peninsula, and the key to solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side,” he said.
Wang is partially right. Kim has assassinated his uncle, who was China’s point-man in Pyongyang, and more recently was responsible for the killing of his half-brother, who had lived in Macau and whom some in Pyongyang believed China had groomed to replace him.
“The Chinese are really between a rock and a hard place,” said the American Enterprise Institute Asia watcher Michael Auslin. “They will be happy to get rid of Kim Jong Un, but they fear a collapse of North Korea.”
While Tillerson said Washington is not seeking regime change, such an outcome clearly is much less worrisome for the U.S. than it is for China. But does China fear a collapse more than an uncontrollable nuclear North Korea? That depends on “which day and what the situation is,” said the State Department’s Thornton.
If China wanted, it could simply “turn off the oil spigot” that supplies all of the North’s energy, said one Western diplomat. Yet, as Auslin noted, hundreds of Chinese companies do business with North Korea at a time when the government’s control over those companies is much looser than it’s been in the past.
Trump has been praising the Chinese premier’s cooperation with the U.S. on North Korea ever since that meeting at Mar-a-Lago. After the missile test on Friday, he acted almost as a spokesman for Xi, tweeting, “North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!”
Yet while China clearly has leverage over North Korea, many factors may prevent it from pushing as hard as America wants and needs it to do. Considering Trump’s capacity to reverse positions, his respect for Beijing may fade before too long.