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.
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.