UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear, China

Pressuring China on North Korea Could Be a Mistake

The Trump administration is intentionally putting China in very tough spot. It is attempting to make the Chinese leadership believe it must choose between a preemptive US attack on North Korea or agreeing to US requests to strangle North Korea’s economy with even tougher sanctions, including cutting off North Korea’s oil supply at the beginning of winter. That may seem like clever diplomacy to some. But it’s a high stakes game of poker that the United States could lose.

The problem with the Trump administration’s strategy – if it is a strategy – is that from China’s point of view both choices lead to war.

China’s Bad Hand

Chinese arms control analysts do not believe North Korea is willing to give up its nuclear weapons program. Moreover, they think the uptick in threatening US language and military posturing have led the North Koreans to accelerate their efforts to develop a credible nuclear deterrent. In their view, the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” is pushing North Korea farther away from the negotiating table, not towards it.

Chinese scholars do not believe the Chinese leadership can influence North Korean decisions about security. One of the most often repeated laments I’ve heard from Chinese colleagues during this visit is that Americans don’t understand that China is not North Korea’s ally. North Korea does not trust China. It never has. Chinese historians are quick to point out that even during the Korean War in the 1950s the North Korean leadership resisted Chinese military intervention. And because North Korea does not trust China, the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear weapons program is the only credible security guarantee it’s got. It is also the only bargaining chip the North Koreans can use to encourage the United States to negotiate, and then honor, a permanent peace treaty.

Chinese military experts do not believe US preemption will succeed. They think the North Korean leadership, and the nuclear weapons program, will survive a surgical strike. In their view, only a massive US attack, accompanied by a ground invasion, has a chance of permanently disarming the North Koreans. Moreover, Chinese military analysts believe that any US attack, no matter how limited, will precipitate North Korean retaliation. That will invite additional US attacks and begin a downward spiral of military activity that will be very hard to stop once it starts.

What does China believe? The Chinese government has stated, on multiple occasions, that severe sanctions, like cutting off oil and food supplies, will “destabilize” the peninsula. That’s the diplomatic way of saying it will lead to war. Chinese analysts do not rule out the possibility that North Korea might decide to punish China for capitulating to the United States. A Chinese military response to any North Korean attack against China risks inviting unwanted US military involvement. Alternatively, a North Korean military attack against South Korea or Japan would compel US military action. Either way, Chinese experts believe the same pattern of escalating attacks and retaliation will ensue.

So, if the Trump administration isn’t bluffing about preemption, and the Chinese leadership believes preemption and sanctions both lead to war, the only real choice China faces is how it should respond to this no-win situation.

Possible Chinese Responses

Like most people faced with impossible choices, China’s leaders will probably try to put things off as long as they can. They will try to give the Trump administration a little more on sanctions and hope that’s enough to keep things quiet a bit longer. At some point, however, when sanctions begin to have a meaningful effect on North Korea, China’s leaders will likely conclude they cannot apply additional pressure without triggering a North Korean military provocation.

Some of the Chinese experts advising President Xi think that time has already come. They are the ones behind the Global Times editorial that threatened Chinese military intervention if the United States fires the first shot. These Chinese hard-liners are now trying to bring Russia on board with discussions about a joint statement warning the Trump administration against a preemptive attack on North Korea. They do not believe the United States is willing to risk a war with China and Russia to attempt a preemptive strike against North Korea that has a low probability of success.

Other Chinese experts don’t want the leadership to take such a huge step backwards and revert to a Cold War-style relationship with the United States. They agree there is no reason to expect North Korea to freeze or dismantle its nuclear weapons program, and that tightened sanctions and increased pressure only strengthen North Korean resolve. Nevertheless, they would rather work with the United States than against it. A tiny minority of those experts would even like the Chinese leadership to consider cooperating with the United States on military action against North Korea.

Likely Outcomes

The chance of that happening is probably quite small. Chinese cooperation in US military action against North Korea would invite North Korean retaliation against China. And China’s leaders have good reason to doubt whether there will be any meaningful reciprocation from the Trump administration in exchange for taking such a huge risk. Chinese military and foreign policy analysts presume the United States will still see China as a rising economic and military threat. Moreover, the Trump administration’s notorious unpredictability would make any US promise unreliable.

Because the choice the United States is presenting to China is so unpalatable, the most likely Chinese response will be to wait out the storm and hope Trump is bluffing. US efforts to ratchet up inflammatory rhetoric and military exercises are unlikely to alter Chinese thinking. Chinese leaders have been confronting US threats and enduring US military posturing for decades. Moreover, there is a tendency in traditional Chinese military culture to believe that preparations for actual military moves are concealed, while advertised preparations, like anchoring a nuclear submarine in South Korea, or practicing air strikes, are for show. Mainstream Chinese interpretations of post-1949 US-China relations reinforce that tendency. From China’s point of view, the Trump administration’s threat to start a war with North Korea looks like a bluff.

If the Trump administration is bluffing, and the Chinese government manages to keep its cool, what happens then? Will China look like the wiser party? Will Japan and South Korea lose faith in Trump’s judgment? It is possible that instead of backing China into a corner, President Trump may find himself trapped in a situation where he feels he has to attack North Korea just to preserve his credibility in Asia.

It would not be the first time a US president fell into this trap. President Eisenhower got stuck in the same conundrum during the Taiwan Straights Crisis of 1954-55. The Joint Chiefs argued the United States had to attack China, and risk nuclear war with the Soviet Union, to preserve US credibility in the region. But Ike was a general too, understood the nature of war, and chose to subordinate concerns about credibility to caution and wait. He chose wisely. How President Trump would respond is a question worth pondering before pushing the strategy of “maximum pressure” to the breaking point.

 

Chinese Military Strategy: A Work in Progress

Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), presents the heads of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Science with the military flag in Beijing, capital of China, July 19, 2017. (Xinhua/Li Gang)

Several years ago UCS reported China could put its nuclear weapons on high alert so they could be launched on warning of an incoming attack. Last week I had the opportunity to speak with some of the authors of The Science of Military Strategy: the authoritative Chinese military publication that was the source of the information in our report.

In a lively discussion, most of which took place between the authors themselves, I was able to confirm our original report is accurate. But I also learned more about how and why The Science of Military Strategy was written and what that can tell US observers about the broader context of how military thinking is evolving in China.

What it means to say China “can” launch on warning.

As of today, China keeps its nuclear forces off alert. The warheads and the missiles are separated and controlled by different commands. The operators are trained to bring them together and prepare them for launch after being attacked first.

China’s nuclear arsenal is small. Reliable estimates of the amount of weapons-grade plutonium China produced and the amount of plutonium China uses in its warheads tell us China has, at most, several hundred nuclear warheads. It has even fewer long-range missiles that could deliver those warheads to targets in the United States.

Because China’s nuclear arsenal is small and kept off alert some Chinese military strategists worry it could be completely wiped out in a single attack. Their US counterparts have told them, in person, that the United States will not rule out attempting a preemptive strike at the beginning of a war. The question for Chinese strategists is whether or not they should do something to mitigate this vulnerability. Many believe the risk of a major war with the United States is low and the risk of a nuclear war is even lower.

For Chinese strategists who don’t share that optimism, there are two basic ways to address their vulnerability. The first would be to significantly increase the size of China’s forces. Chinese nuclear weapons experts told me that would require a lot of time and considerable effort. They would need to resume producing plutonium for weapons and may also need to resume nuclear testing. The economic costs would be considerable. The diplomatic costs would be even greater.

The second way to avoid the risk of allowing an adversary to think they can wipe out China’s nuclear force with a preemptive strike is for China to put its forces on alert and enable them to be launched on warning of an incoming attack. That would require the development of an early warning system. It may also require upgrading China’s nuclear-capable missiles. One Chinese missile engineer explained that China’s existing missiles are not designed to be kept on continuous alert.

Either option would significantly alter China’s nuclear posture. But the latter may also require a consequential change in China’s nuclear doctrine.

China’s political leaders promised the world they would never, under any circumstances, be the first to use nuclear weapons. Wouldn’t launching on warning of attack, before any damage is done, violate that promise? The answer is not as obvious to Chinese policy-makers as it probably seems to their American counterparts, who don’t believe in the efficacy or credibility of a no first use pledge in the first place.

What I learned in my conversation with the authors of The Science of Military Strategy is that when they wrote that China “can” launch on warning of an incoming attack they were not saying China has the technical capability to do so,  nor were they announcing the intention to implement a launch on warning policy. They were simply declaring that, in their view, China could launch on warning—before their missiles were destroyed—without violating China’s no first use pledge.

Shouldn’t they have made that more explicit?

The authors told me, in response to a direct question, that they did not consider the impact of what they were writing on external audiences. That does not mean they were unaware non-Chinese might read it, just that they weren’t writing for them. The Science of Military Strategy is  an institutional assessment of China’s current strategic situation prepared for the consideration of the rest of China’s defense establishment and its political leadership. Those two audiences wouldn’t need to be told what the “can” in an Academy of Military Science (AMS) statement on launch on warning was referencing. They would already understand the context. As the authors explained, AMS is not responsible for making technical assessments of China’s capabilities, nor does it make public announcements about Chinese military policies or the intentions of China’s political leadership.

It’s difficult for many US observers to imagine that Chinese open source publications like The Science of Military Strategy aren’t just another form of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda. That’s understandable given Chinese government controls on speech and publication. But even in a relatively closed and tightly controlled polity like China’s, professionals still need to engage in meaningful discussion, including military professionals. Understanding that internal discussion from abroad requires more than parsing the language in Chinese publications. It also requires a sufficient degree of familiarity with the social, institutional and sometimes even the personal factors that define the context within which Chinese discussions of controversial topics – like nuclear weapons policy – take place.

Regular interaction with Chinese counterparts is the only way to acquire this familiarity. Unfortunately, both governments make that much more difficult than it needs to be. And language is still a significant barrier, especially on the US side.

Pessimism on US-China Relations

Most of my Chinese colleagues believe the intergovernmental relationship between China and the United States is deteriorating. The cooperative relationship of the 1980s and 1990s gradually gave way to an increasingly competitive relationship over the past two US administrations. The new edition of The Science of Military Strategy, composed over an 18-month period prior to its publication in 2013, addresses new issues that might emerge if this trend continues, and the relationship moves from competition toward conflict.

There is no fixed schedule for putting out a new edition. According to a general who was also involved the production of two prior editions, the first addressed concerns related to China-USSR relations. The second responded to the so-called “revolution in military affairs” exemplified by the new technologies used in the 1991 Gulf War. The current edition had no equally specific point of origin. It was, in the Chinese general’s words, more “forward-looking.” And as the Chinese military looks forward, its relationship with the United States looms large on the horizon.

None of the authors felt China’s overall military capabilities were remotely comparable to those of the United States. One of the more interesting barometers they used was the average annual salary of an ordinary soldier. All of the authors agreed this gap is unlikely to be closed in the foreseeable future. China still needs to focus its military development in select areas. Having a clearer understanding of what China’s future military challenges might be—an understanding AMS is charged with articulating—can help Chinese decision-makers set priorities.

That one of those priorities is addressing the vulnerability of China’s nuclear forces to a US preemptive attack is a troubling indicator of deteriorating relations.

 

Trump and Asia’s Strongmen

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe poses for the cameras with US President Donald Trump during his recent trip to Asia.

Earlier this month, from the gallery of the Diet building in Tokyo, I listened to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talk up his friendship with US President Donald Trump and their plans to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons. This was the centerpiece of his State of the Union address and the claim that convinced anxious Japanese voters to support Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) during the October 22nd election.

It is not unusual for the US-Japan relationship to take center stage in Japan’s domestic politics. No matter who is in the White House, most Japanese voters expect their prime minister to get on well the US president. The cold shoulder Barack Obama gave Abe’s predecessors from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) expedited the demise of the only non-LDP led Japanese government in the last fifty years.

Abe’s domestic policies are unpopular. He rammed through a divisive national security law that restricted press freedom, stifling inquiry and dissent. He continues to push nuclear power despite the public’s post-Fukushima reticence. Abenomics increased economic growth but exploded the deficit and shuffled the gains to Japan’s top 1%, increasing inequality and undermining Japan’s social safety net without addressing any of Japan’s long-term economic challenges. Had the opposition not split over national security concerns, the LDP would have had a tougher time convincing Japanese voters to support them at the polls.

Playing the Field

Unfortunately for Mr. Abe, Mr. Trump is also fond of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The lavish praise Trump awarded the Chinese leader could eventually undermine Abe’s reputation as an able steward of US-Japan relations. Japanese anxieties about China run deeper than their concerns about North Korea. Sporadic fears of US abandonment have plagued Japan ever since Nixon went to China in 1972. For the time being, the Japanese media tends to underreport Trump’s budding bromance with Xi. Should that change, Mr. Abe might start to look like the weaker suitor for the current US president’s attention.

Vladimir Putin also got his share of kind words from the US president on his first official trip to Asia. Most importantly, the ex-KGB officer received a US presidential vote of confidence in his denial of Kremlin meddling in American politics. Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea and his ongoing military intervention in Ukraine didn’t even make the news. Instead, the leader of the free world focused global attention on the Russian autocrat’s rough treatment at the hands of his Western critics.

Looking Forward

Sooner or later the Japanese public will start to wonder about the wisdom of Abe’s close personal relationship with Trump, especially if his US approval ratings stay in the basement and he begins to look like a one-term president. Japanese doubts may quickly turn to anger if the governing LDP spends money it doesn’t have on expensive military hardware it doesn’t need just to mollify Mr. Trump’s anger over a trade deficit that, because of the sheer size of the Japanese and US economies, could never be closed by US arms sales.

Unlike China and Russia, Japan is a democracy where its leaders are only as strong as the support of the people they govern, who eventually will hold them accountable at the polls. Mr. Abe’s tendency to stoke their fears and promise protection may win over a majority of Japanese voters for awhile, and some Japanese voters indefinitely. But the old adage attributed to Abraham Lincoln about the impossibility of successfully manipulating most voters most of the time probably still holds, even in the age of Facebook and Twitter.

Progressive opponents of authoritarian politicians can hasten their demise and prevent their return with better answers to the national security problems that often get them elected. Here in Japan, Yuriko Koike’s “Party of Hope” tried to out tough the LDP with nationalistic rhetoric on defense and trade. But the popular Tokyo governor’s party was crushed at the polls and she resigned from its leadership. Progressive Japanese legislators uncomfortable with Koike’s turn to the right reassembled as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), which fared much better in the recent election and is now the largest opposition party in the Diet.

Tsujimoto Kiyomi, who is leading the fight against Abe’s effort to limit the opposition’s ability to question him, recognizes the CDPJ needs to address the electorate’s concerns about North Korea and China if it wants to lead a progressive Japanese majority back to power. In an interview hours before Abe’s address to the Diet, she explained that Trump’s hard line on North Korea—and Abe’s willingness to parrot it—were not the source of their support in Japan. Japanese voters, like their counterparts in South Korea and the United States, are understandably nervous when they hear both men claim that the time for dialog with North Korea is over. That implies preparations for military actions that could drag Japan into a war and lead to attacks on Japanese cities.

According to Ms. Kiyomi, and other CDPJ legislators I spoke with this month, Japanese voters were responding to Trump’s camaraderie with their prime minister. They understand Japan’s national defense depends on help from the United States. Specific policies matter less than the personal relationships Japanese voters find reassuring.

Unfortunately, because the LDP has been the majority party for all but three of the past 50 years, Japan’s progressive opposition hasn’t had much of chance to develop mature relationships with US government officials. Even when progressives were in charge of the government, the career LDP officials in the bureaucracy continued to dominate US-Japan relations. Moreover, these LDP bureaucrats sought to undermine their political opponents by telling US officials, and the Japanese public, that the new progressive Japanese leadership was anti-American. It’s an unfair accusation that stuck, creating a false impression that the new leadership of the CDPJ intends to work hard to correct.

Support from leading progressive politicians in the United States would help, a lot. Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, is a political hero in Japan. His campaign for the US presidency was well-received by Japanese voters who share many of the same economic anxieties Sanders spoke to during the 2016 election. Visible friendly relations with progressive US leaders like Sanders would give the LDP’s progressive opponents the same political shot in the arm that Abe got from his relationship with Trump.

More importantly, US progressives could learn a great deal about America’s most important Asian ally if they expanded their brief beyond the old school US Japan hands who steered President Obama away from progressive politicians in Japan. That’s especially true when it comes to defense and foreign policy. Progressive politicians in both countries have a hard-time convincing their respective voters that they can be effective international leaders. They might be able to change that by working together on tough problems like North Korea, rather than continuing to work separately.

 

Xi’s China

What’s happening in China? The US consensus seems to be that President Xi Jinping is upending the place. Yet, midway through an expected ten-year term China’s communist party general secretary delivered a report to the 19th Party Congress that reiterated all the language, ideas and policies that the Chinese communists have used to govern the country since the mid-1980s. The most remarkable thing about Xi’s China is that it hasn’t changed at all.

Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping addresses the 19th Party Congress

China remains a socialist country. Xi’s not only proud of that, he’s confident that continuing to follow the socialist road will put China on the right side of history. What makes his tenure at the top seem different is that he’s unapologetically elevated ideology over policy. In Chairman Mao’s parlance, Xi is a little more red than expert.

But that doesn’t mean he’s changed Chinese policy. Internationally, Xi reported China remains open to the outside world. Domestically, his government remains committed to economic and political reform. It may not be the kind of openness or the type of reform US officials hoped for, but US expectations for China have always been based on a different view of history. Even after the Chinese leadership used lethal military force to suppress nationwide public demonstrations in June of 1989, most US observers still believed that international engagement, market economics and the rise of the Chinese middle class would eventually lead to the fall of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the emergence of a multi-party Chinese democracy. Instead, if Xi’s report is to be believed, Chinese socialism has emerged from the crucible of Tiananmen Square stronger than it was before.

Continuity and Change in Communist China

The last time China really changed was when Mao died. Mao believed that global revolution was right around the corner and that China was ready for a rapid transformation to communism. The leaders who inherited the party in Mao’s wake, especially Deng Xiaoping, saw the world and China’s place within it very differently. At home, China was only in the beginning stages of a transformation to socialism that would take a very long time. And as the party set about engineering that incremental transformation, China would need to engage the world as it was rather than imagining they would change it. Deng told his comrades they needed to be humble as they worked to fulfill their Chinese socialist dream to modernize the country and restore Chinese influence in the world.

Xi Jinping’s report does not stray too far from that advice. China’s made a lot of progress since Deng died twenty years ago, but it is still, according to Xi, in the early stages of a long-term transformation to socialism. China’s progress may have elevated its position in the world, and given China a greater say in international governance, but there is nothing in Xi’s report about China leading a movement to upend the global status quo.

Xi does believe that Chinese socialism can set an example for the rest of the world to follow, and that more active Chinese participation can help transform the international order. As a committed Marxist, Xi should believe an eventual transition to a socialist global order is inevitable. But in the short term, Xi’s China appears squarely focused on the fifth of humanity that lives within its borders, where good governance is at a crossroads, crippled by endemic corruption rooted in the attitudes and behavior of party cadres who’ve lost the faith. Xi’s project, if you take his party congress report at face value, seems to be to save Chinese socialism and consolidate its gains, not to change it.

Implications for the United States

Is a consolidated and internationally persuasive Chinese socialism a threat to the United States? Unfortunately, that’s a question many US analysts and officials are no longer inclined to address. During the Maoist era, when China was “more red than expert,” there was greater US interest in the content of Chinese socialism. Today, US observers tend to view the CCP leadership’s repeated recitations of its socialist principles and practices as propaganda masking personal or national ambitions.

US commentaries on Xi’s speech reflect this. Most of them interpret Xi’s campaign against corruption as a personal quest to consolidate power rather than a campaign to save Chinese socialism. Instead of taking Xi and his recent predecessors at their word and seeing the principal aim of their post-1980s efforts as the achievement of a “moderate level of prosperity” for China‘s 1.4 billion, many US observers see this as an attempt to hide the CCP’s real aim, which they believe is kicking the United States out of Asia and supplanting US dominance of the region. For Americans, the contest between the United States and China is perceived as an historic struggle between rising and falling national powers rather than competing ideologies.

If Xi is a budding dictator leading a nationalist political organization focused on replacing the United States at the top of a global hierarchy then US policy makers should be concerned. But what if the Chinese dream articulated in Xi’s report to the 19th Party Congress is a fair representation of the CCP’s ambitions? Should the United States be alarmed? The answer is not obvious and the question seems to deserve greater consideration.

North Korea’s Next Test?

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho warned reporters in New York that his country may place a live nuclear warhead on one of its missiles, launch it, and then detonate the bomb in the open air.

It would not be the first time a country conducted such a test. The Soviet Union tried and failed in 1956. The United States was successful in 1962. But perhaps the most relevant historical precedent is the Chinese test in 1966.

 

An excerpt from 东方巨响 : a documentary film on the history of China’s nuclear weapons program produced by China’s People’s Liberation Army and released in 1999.

 

China’s Choice

At the time China was nearly as isolated as North Korea is today. The Soviet Union was no longer an ally but an adversary, massing military forces along China’s northern border. The United States kept the People’s Republic out of the United Nations and encircled its eastern coast with military bases in Japan, South Korea, the Republic of China on Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Despite relentless Chinese propaganda proclaiming invincible revolutionary strength, China’s leaders felt extraordinarily insecure in the face of mounting Soviet and US pressure.

China set off its first nuclear explosion in October of 1964 and proved it could deliver a militarily useful nuclear weapon with a bomber less than a year later. But the Chinese leadership still felt a need to demonstrate it could launch a nuclear-armed missile and detonate it near a target hundreds of kilometers away. Only then could Chinese leaders feel confident they introduced the possibility of nuclear retaliation into the minds of US and Soviet officials considering a first strike. Chinese Marshall Nie Rongzhen, who led China’s nuclear weapons program and directed the test, summed up Chinese thinking in his memoir.

Mating an atomic bomb to a missile and conducting a real swords and spears test required facing very great risks. If the missile exploded at the launch site, if it fell in the middle of its flight or if it strayed out of the target area there would be unthinkable consequences. But I was deeply confident in our scientists, in our engineers and in our comrades working at the bases, who all possessed a spirit of high responsibility. Our research and design work was thorough and the medium-range missile we developed was reliable, with a highly successful launch rate. But more than that, in order to show our missiles were genuinely a weapon of great power that could be used in war we had to conduct this test of them together.

North Korea’s Choice

It is impossible to know if the individuals leading North Korea’s nuclear weapons program have the same degree of confidence in their technology and their personnel.  But it is not hard to believe they feel the same urgent need to prove North Korea has a useable nuclear weapon, especially in the face of continuing US doubts. China’s expansive land mass allowed its leaders to conduct their test in a way that only put their own people at risk. But tiny North Korea must send its nuclear-armed missile out into the Pacific Ocean on a trajectory that would fly over Japan. If a failed North Korean test were to impact Japan it could precipitate a large-scale war in North-East Asia that could kill a million people on the first day.

Hopefully, avoiding that horrible outcome is the top priority of the North Koreans contemplating the test and the Americans considering responses. Kim and his cadres might feel less inclined to risk the test if it they were convinced President Trump and his national security team were already genuinely worried about the possibility of North Korean nuclear retaliation. Unfortunately, that’s an assurance Washington is unlikely to give Pyongyang. It still hasn’t given it to Beijing. US unwillingness to take the option of a first strike off the table, combined with demonstrations of resolve like the provocative flight of B1 bombers out of Guam and F15 fighters out of Okinawa, could tip North Korean scales in favor of conducting the test.

Critical Differences

Chairman Mao didn’t worship nuclear weapons. He famously disparaged the atomic bomb as a paper tiger. Mao believed nuclear weapons were too destructive to use in a war. Their only value was in vitiating nuclear threats against China with the fear of potential retaliation. Does Kim Jong-un think about nuclear weapons the same way? We don’t know, because we don’t talk to the North Koreans enough to understand their point of view or trust anything they say.

China went on to develop a very limited nuclear force calibrated to maintain a credible possibility of nuclear retaliation. The United States government not only never panicked, it found a way to develop a viable relationship with the nuclear-armed communist giant. By the time China first tested an ICBM capable of reaching the United States, reforms within China made it appear even less threatening. Profound US discomfort with China’s nuclear force remains, but the two sides have managed to not only avoid a war but to develop robust and mutually beneficial ties.

North Korea may seem too small, its culture too parochial to make dialog and cooperation as appealing to the United States as Nixon’s opening to China in 1972—just six years after China’s daring nuclear-armed missile test. It is hard for the nation of 24 million with a GDP the size of Jackson, Mississippi’s to command the same respect as China’s 1.3 billion. Perhaps the North Korean leadership sees nuclear weapons as a great equalizer: a viable means to force the United States to sign a peace treaty, and, as one North Korean student recently told a US reporter, “leave us alone.

The US Choice

Ri told the United Nations that the “ultimate goal” of his country’s nuclear weapons program was to “establish a balance of power with the United States.” It is worth exploring what that means, and bilateral dialog is the only way to do that.

There is no indication North Korea will agree to denuclearize unless the United States agrees to join them. The US must decide whether the risks of continuing to rely solely on pressuring North Korea, at the cost of Pyongyang’s ever more provocative demonstrations of its capability to harm the United States, are more likely to yield an acceptable outcome than the risks of engaging the North Koreans in a discussion of what might be required to make their nuclear weapons program less threatening to the United States and its allies. The most immediate choice is whether continuing to introduce ambiguity about pre-emptive US military action is worth provoking the test flight of a nuclear-armed missile over Japan.

In the Chinese case the United States came to tolerate its nuclear weapons program in the context of broader shifts in the international security environment that encouraged a bilateral rapprochement, even though the fundamental security problem – Chinese reunification and the status of the Republic of China on Taiwan – remained unresolved. The initial impetus for reestablishing relations was a shared concern about a mutual adversary, the Soviet Union. But the relationship managed to outlive the Soviet Union’s collapse. Tensions within the US-China security relationship have slowly intensified in the post-Cold War period and the United States is still unwilling to accept its vulnerability to Chinese nuclear retaliation. Yet both sides, for the time being, do not seem overly concerned about the risk of a nuclear confrontation.

Despite their volatility, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un could find the basis for a US-North Korean rapprochement in their shared concern about an accidental nuclear war, or the outbreak of a conventional confrontation that would cause great harm to both nations. Talking about stopping a risky test of a nuclear-armed missile that would fly over Japan is a good place to start.

China is urging both sides to come to the table.