China’s Xi Jinping government is expressing both hope and concern toward the Trump administration. The Trump administration’s decision, in accordance with its “America First” policies, to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and shift away from Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policies, is considered as an opportunity for China to expand its status and influence in the Asia-Pacific region. To Beijing’s relief, President Trump also accepts the long-held “One China” principle. But his criticism of China as a “grand champion of currency manipulation” will continue to strain U.S.-China relations.
The U.S. trade deficit in goods, without services, recorded over $734 billion last year. Among this, the deficit with China was $347 billion or close to 47% which is conspicuously high compared to deficits with Japan (9.3%), Germany (8.8%), Mexico (8.6%) and South Korea (3.3%).
With regard to the Korean Peninsula, Beijing is overtly opposed to the deployment of the THAAD missile defense battery in South Korea while engaging in a diplomatic tug-of-war with Seoul and Washington to cope with the worsening North Korea problem. As the U.S. quickened the process to deploy THAAD launchers in South Korea recently, China reacted vehemently by warning that South Korea (as a host country) was making a mistake and urging the Seoul government to halt the deployment. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to take up these trade and security issues with China in Beijing following his trip to Tokyo and Seoul for consultation.
Apparently, China has pursued its policy of maintaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and problem-solving through dialogue and negotiation. China prefers the status quo to a radical change that could destabilize the Korean peninsula. This is because of the strategic values North Korea offers as a “buffer zone” to China to counter the U.S. influence on the Korean peninsula.
China remains North Korea’s biggest trading partner and provides 90% of North Korea’s energy and 45% of its food. 80% of the goods circulated in the North Korean commodity market come from China.
In theory, therefore, China can choose to exercise its economic leverage against North Korea to the full extent, which will contribute greatly to solving the North Korea nuclear problem.
If the Kim Jong-un regime succeeds in developing and deploying medium and long-range missiles mounted with nuclear warheads, thus practically becoming a “nuclear state”, Beijing has no choice but to face this challenge as a serious national security threat. This will also undermine U.S.-China and ROK-China relations.
In practice, however, it may be unrealistic to expect Beijing to exert maximum economic and military pressure on Pyongyang to the point of inducing radical reactions from the North or causing a regime collapse.
China seems to believe that maintaining a friendly partnership with a nuclearized North Korea on a limited scale is more in its national interests than to confront a sudden regime collapse in the North and possible absorption by the South. For its part, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un regime also seems to believe that acquiring independent nuclear capability guarantees its regime’s survival more than any verbal or tangible support it receives from China.
It is encouraging that the Xi Jinping government has been participating in international sanctions based on the UN resolution 2321 in reaction to continued nuclear and missile provocations by the North. But China’s intervention may not stretch enough to the extent that Pyongyang regime is imperiled by domestic instability.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently suggested a parallel approach of introducing a peace regime on the Korean peninsula while pursuing denuclearization at the same time, by resuming the Six Party Talks which have been stalled for more than 8 years.
This can be seen as a diplomatic effort to find an exit strategy to the growing dilemma faced by China regarding the North Korea problem. In that regard, it is noteworthy that the Beijing government has recently banned imports of North Korean coal as a clear sign of toughening its stance against North Korea. China’s import boycott will substantially constrain the North Korean economy. North Korea conducts nearly 90% of its trade with China and coal is North Korea’s number one export item, making up for 35% of the country’s economy. There exists a growing disenchantment about North Korea’s misbehavior both within the Chinese leadership and the public. China seems grossly offended by the brutal assassination of Kim Jong-nam, who had been protected by Beijing during his prolonged exile based in Macao. The sudden removal of Kim Jong-nam, a royal bloodline of the Kim family dynasty, signifies that Beijing would be unable to exercise its influence to provide an alternative leadership in Pyongyang in case of contingency.
Still, China would continue to argue that North Korea’s nuclear issue is basically a problem to be resolved between Washington and Pyongyang. Also, Beijing has been putting increasing pressure on Seoul to renounce the scheduled deployment of THAAD missile battery. The irony, however, is that the stronger the Chinese intervention becomes, the greater the public resistance in Korea toward China grows. Furthermore, China’s aggressive diplomacy regarding the THAAD issue has backfired by stimulating trilateral security cooperation among Korea, the U.S. and Japan.
From South Korea’s perspective, China’s role will nevertheless continue to be important to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue considering China’s major economic leverage and ideological comradeship with North Korea. So, Seoul should implement a proactive diplomatic approach to engage in a strategic dialogue with Beijing while reminding the Chinese side that Pyongyang’s escalating nuclear and missile threats will only help justify the case for deploying THAAD in South Korea as a necessary self-defensive measure. Plus, Seoul should point out that China’s retaliatory cultural and economic measures, such as tourism ban and boycott of Korean products, will not only jeopardize the bilateral partnership but also undermine China’s own interests. Meanwhile, a logical start to build a durable peace regime on the Korean peninsula would be to conclude a peace pact between the two Koreas, not between North Korea and the U.S.
Park Jin is the chairman of the Korean-American Association. Park wrote this column on the basis of The Korea Times Roundtable last week.