Commentary: Trump, Clinton play the ‘China card’ against North Korea

As North Korea’s testing of its nuclear weapons picks up speed, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton recently outlined strategies for addressing the growing threat from Pyongyang. To the horror of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, Trump expressed a willingness to meet directly with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. (Kim later praised Trump as a “prescient presidential candidate.”)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Ryugyong General Ophthalmic Hospital under construction in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 27, 2016. KCNA/ via REUTERS

Trump also alluded to North Korea’s economic and political dependence on Beijing, arguing that “China can solve that problem for us with one phone call.”

Clinton shares Trump’s view on using China to pressure North Korea, with the Clinton campaign’s top foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan arguing that China will have to be part of the strategy to increase pressure on North Korea. Sullivan further implied that a Clinton administration might use “secondary sanctions” against Chinese companies doing business with North Korea to force Beijing to pressure Pyongyang.

In theory the idea of using the “China card” has merit. North Korea remains almost entirely dependent on its powerful neighbor for food, fuel, aid and connections to the outside world. Pyongyang needs Beijing so badly that withdrawal of that support could result in North Korea’s collapse. Clearly, then, China possesses enormous leverage over North Korea – and the United States naturally implores China to use this leverage to force the North to abandon its nuclear program. In an ideal world, Washington would like Beijing to tell Pyongyang “end your nuclear program or face an end to Chinese aid and support.”

Washington’s focus on the “China card,” though, overlooks one key question: Why would China help the United States pressure North Korea? No matter how much the United States pushes China to get tough with the North, Beijing demonstrates no willingness to play the role Washington assigns it in the effort to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

The reason for this lack of success is clear: Despite its own disquiet regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, China has a strong interest in continuing to support North Korea. To change Beijing’s calculus, Washington must therefore understand China’s geopolitical calculus regarding North Korea – and then make China an offer sufficiently attractive to abandon its troublesome ally.

To start, the United States must understand that the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship goes back to the very creation of North Korea. China’s Mao Zedong once famously described the China-North Korean relationship as being “close as lips and teeth,” and in 1951 during the Korean War – as American troops crossed into North Korea and approached the Yalu River demarcation line between China and the North – Chinese troops entered the war on North Korea’s side to push American troops back from its frontier.

Since then, China has continued to see North Korea as a critical buffer between its own border and the American troops stationed in South Korea. From China’s perspective, if it precipitated North Korea’s collapse by ending aid to Pyongyang, Beijing could face the possibility of a powerful united Korea with American troops now stationed on the northern side of the former border – a strategic nightmare for the Chinese. Many obstacles to reunification exist – and even many in South Korea question its desirability – but Beijing nevertheless fears the degradation to its strategic position reunification might produce.

Luckily for the United States, though, China understands that North Korea’s increasingly threatening nuclear posture significantly undermines China’s geopolitical interests. First, it increases the likelihood that Japan might consider revising Article 9 of its constitution, which bans Tokyo from using war as a means to settle international disputes involving Japan. Tokyo already reinterpreted Article 9 once to allow Japan to engage in “collective self-defense” if an ally were attacked. If Japan completely eliminated Article 9, it would likely be a precursor to a Japanese military buildup – the last thing China wants to see.

North Korean nuclear belligerence also justifies the United States’ decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system (THAAD) – to be operated by American forces – in South Korea. While targeted to shoot down North Korean missiles, Beijing believes the system also weakens its own nuclear deterrent, a fear that could contain some substance.

Finally, Trump already suggested Japan and South Korea could develop their own arsenal to counter North Korea. “Would I rather have North Korea have [nuclear weapons] with Japan sitting there having them also? You may very well be better off if that’s the case,” noted Trump. China already worries Japan possesses a so-called “bomb in the basement” due to its huge plutonium stockpile from its civilian nuclear energy program, and Beijing demanded that Tokyo eliminate this stockpile and refrain from opening a new plutonium reactor. Beijing’s “no first use” policy on nuclear weapons was partially designed to preempt any decision by Tokyo to go nuclear, so even the slightest possibility of a nuclear Japan arguably constitutes China’s “ultimate nightmare.”

Given the damage Pyongyang’s nuclear program inflicts on China’s interests, Washington should offer Beijing the following three-part deal if China agrees to pressure – and if necessary abandon – its North Korean ally if Pyongyang doesn’t end its nuclear program.

First, the United States should commit that in the event of a North Korean collapse and reunification with the South, the United States would withdraw all of its forces – including its THAAD anti-missile system – from a newly united Korea. The primary reason American troops remain in South Korea is to protect it from the North, but if North Korea collapsed without Beijing’s support, then by definition the primary raison d’être for American forces on the Korean peninsula would disappear.

Many in the Washington foreign policy establishment would no doubt prefer a post-unification arrangement that allows American troops to remain south of the original border – something that would keep a reunited Korea within the United States’ Asian alliance network. This would be analogous to the arrangement offered to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when Western leaders promised not to deploy NATO troops in the former East Germany in exchange for Gorbachev permitting German reunification. However, it’s unlikely China would agree to such an arrangement, since American troops could still rapidly deploy north to China’s borders in a crisis.

Second, Washington and Seoul would need to promise Beijing that in the event that Chinese pressure resulted in a North Korean collapse and reunification with the South – however unlikely to occur in the near future - Seoul would destroy any nuclear weapons it acquired when it absorbed the North.

Finally, the United States should propose that a reunited Korea would become officially neutral, and agree to end the Washington-Seoul military alliance. Finland and Austria agreed to a similar arrangement with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and as a result, the Soviets withdrew all their troops from Austria, while also respecting Finland’s sovereignty during the duration of the Cold War. A similar arrangement for Korea vis-à-vis China could surely work as well.

To be clear, China might still decline this deal, preferring the devil it knows – a difficult but still allied Pyongyang – over the uncertainly produced by a possible North Korean collapse. Moreover, anti-China hawks in Washington would likely argue the deal gives away too much to China. But if the United States really wants China’s help in forcing North Korea to end its nuclear program, it must think outside the box and make China the proverbial offer it can’t refuse.

About the Author

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union. He tweets @jkc_in_dc The opinions expressed are his own.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.