China figures strongly into the current North Korea crisis, but exactly how is a matter of dispute. President Trump seems to believe that China is the key to resolving the matter of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, but it is far from certain that China’s interests in the region align with our own.
Beyond the fact that Trump was overtly hostile and, at times, insulting to China during the presidential campaign, China is in the midst of a long campaign to expand its power in Asia and beyond. Chinese island-building in the South China Sea is common knowledge. Less known is how Chinese influence is growing in the Middle East, Africa and even the Americas.
As Chinese military and economic influence grows around the world, the inescapable conclusion is that China has dreams of replacing the US as the world’s dominant superpower. That being the case, it would be in China’s interest to make the US look bad in the confrontation with North Korea. If China can use North Korea to hasten the American decline in Asia, which began with the 1953 stalemate in Korea and continued with Vietnam and the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership, it would probably not hesitate to do so.
Aside from their aim of overtaking the United States, a secondary goal of the Chinese government could be to test President Trump. There is pattern of Chinese crises shortly after Republican presidents take office. In June 1989, five months after George H. W. Bush became president, violent repression of the Chinese democracy protests at Tiananmen Square led to soured relations between the two countries. In April 2001, three months into the presidency of George W. Bush, a Chinese fighter collided with a US Navy reconnaissance plane. The American plane made an emergency landing on Hainan Island and the crew was detained for 11 days by the Chinese government. Now, soon after President Trump took office, the North Koreans increased their missile testing. While these incidents were presumably not manufactured by China, they may well have used the events to test the mettle of the new occupants of the Oval Office.
What could be the Chinese endgame for the Korean crisis? After President Trump made trade concessions to China last spring for doing approximately nothing to help with the Korean situation, Beijing may believe that they can win additional concessions from the US if the crisis is allowed to get worse.
If President Trump backs down after having made resolving the North Korean issue a priority, the Chinese will win by default. The United States and President Trump will lose face and credibility around the world. With both President Trump and Kim Jong Un trying to outdo the other’s bellicose rhetoric, at the moment China is playing the role of the adult in the room.
If the US actually attacks North Korea, it would present a problem for China. China has a longstanding relationship with its patron government in Pyongyang. Animosity between the Chinese and the Koreans goes back centuries, but for the past 75 years, North Korea has been a loyal client of Communist China.
In 1950, when American and United Nations troops advanced too close to the Chinese border, China intervened with a massive attack that sent allied armies reeling. Those who doubt that China would do the same thing in 2017 need only consider the unofficial nickname of Korea, “a dagger aimed at the heart of China.” China cannot allow the US or its allies to occupy North Korea.
A US attack on North Korea would require a Chinese response and the Chinese have said as much in an editorial in the Chinese Global Times. The paper notes that “Beijing is not able to persuade Washington or Pyongyang to back down at this time,” but that “it needs to make clear… when their actions jeopardize China’s interests, China will respond with a firm hand.”
The editorial says that if North Korea strikes first China will remain neutral. This may be a tacit assurance that the North will not attack without provocation. Then it issues a warning: “If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.”
Regardless of whether China is goading North Korea forward behind the scenes or Kim is acting on his own, the brinksmanship is a most dangerous game that could easily get out of hand and lead to a major conflict. Whatever President Trump does, on the Korean peninsula and elsewhere, the Chinese will undoubtedly be watching.