Days ahead of a pivotal meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Donald Trump used a weekend interview to send him a blunt message: The US is prepared to act on its own if Beijing doesn’t do more to rein in North Korea.
In an interview with the Financial Times on Sunday, Trump repeatedly drove home the point that the threat posed by North Korea’s rapidly growing nuclear program is dire enough that the US will move unilaterally if China isn’t willing to apply more pressure to Pyongyang to halt its activities.
“China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t,” Trump said in his interview. “If they do, that will be very good for China, and if they don’t, it won’t be good for anyone.”
Trump described trade relations with Beijing as his main bargaining chip, arguing that China could be persuaded to get over its reluctance to get tough with North Korea if they feared a disruption in business ties. "Trade is the incentive. It is all about trade,” he said.
Trump dodged a direct question about whether he’d consider a grand bargain in which China agreed to ramp up pressure on North Korea in exchange for the US withdrawing the presence of its substantial military presence on the Korean peninsula.
“Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you,” he said in response to the idea.
Both the US and China are in a strategically tricky situation on North Korea. During the White House transition, former President Barack Obama told Trump that North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs would be the most urgent national security issue he’d likely face in office. In the past eight months, Pyongyang has successfully launched three medium-range missiles, and Kim Jong-un is claiming he’s in “the final stage in preparations” for the first test of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which would mark a significant step toward its capacity to hit the continental US. North Korea frequently exaggerates its technical abilities, however, and it’s not clear how close they are to what would be a potentially game-changing advance.
At the moment, the Trump administration considers all options to disable Pyongyang’s program to be on the table. Reuters cites a US official who says the administration is leaning toward sanctions; military action is under review as well. But the best chance the White House has at acting effectively without firing shots is with the assistance of China, North Korea’s economic lifeline and the only major world power the country has remotely friendly relations with. China has more leverage over North Korea than any other state, which is why Trump is suggesting he’d consider the risky move of disrupting trade relations with China to get them on board.
But China isn’t eager to get too aggressive with North Korea. While it has recently suspended coal imports from North Korea in a major blow to the country’s economy, Beijing doesn’t want to escalate too swiftly or forcefully. China isn’t as worried about North Korea’s nuclear program as it is the potential collapse of the country itself, which would create a refugee crisis on the peninsula and likely send millions of North Koreans pouring across the Chinese-North Korean border.
It also fears that any such scenario would mean the US would likely dramatically increase its military presence in the region to deal with the fallout from the collapse and secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
But if Beijing is truly convinced that Trump isn’t willing to wait around for them to press North Korea, that could theoretically force Beijing’s hand. Ultimately, they have a huge stake in whatever Washington decides to do about North Korea — and they’re probably going to want to help shape that decision, rather than nervously anticipating worst-case scenarios.