On North Korea, China is no partner

On North Korea, China is no partner
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China is a “rival power,” said President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Third judge orders Postal Service to halt delivery cuts MORE in Monday’s speech introducing his official National Security Strategy. Yet conflict is not inevitable, he said, so we will attempt to build a “great partnership” with our rivals, “in a manner that always protects our national interests.” Trump is absolutely right to label China as a rival; what remains doubtful is whether there is any potential for partnership with Beijing when it comes to dealing with the exceptionally dangerous threat posed by North Korea.   

While professing its interest in a denuclearized North Korea, China has played a critical role in aiding and abetting the growth of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. When North Korea launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in July, it transported the missile on a Chinese truck. Chinese firms sell advanced machine tools to North Korea while Chinese universities train North Korean students from institutions that educate nuclear scientists. Meanwhile, Chinese individuals, banks, and front companies process billions of dollars of transactions on behalf of North Korea, enabling it to evade sanctions.

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In addition to facilitating North Korea’s reckless behavior, China employs threats and coercion to deter South Korea from adopting defensive measures. Last year, after South Korea’s decision to deploy the American-made THAAD missile defense system, China throttled trade with certain South Korean sectors, incurring major losses on South Korea’s automobile, tourist, entertainment, and retail industries.

For instance, South Korea’s tourism industry lost nearly $6.5 billion in revenue after the number of Chinese tourists dropped by nearly 50 percent. While China and South Korea resolved the THAAD dispute earlier in November, their settlement demonstrated China’s intent to de-couple Seoul from the U.S. and its Pacific allies, such as Japan and Australia.

Not surprisingly, Beijing’s proposals for dealing with North Korea’s illicit nuclear program are much more favorable to North Korea than they are to the United States. In exchange for a pause in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Beijing wants the U.S. and South Korea to suspend their joint military exercises. This proposal goes by the name of “dual-suspension” or “freeze-for-freeze” as the best option for North Korea.

In essence, the proposal asks the U.S. and South Korea to disrupt their legitimate defensive preparations in exchange for North Korea merely pausing a dangerous activity that violates numerous UN Security Council Resolutions.

Even if North Korea stopped the very visible testing of its new missiles, what reason is there to believe that it would stop any other aspects of research and development? The U.S. cannot afford to forget that Pyongyang has reneged on all past nuclear freeze agreements, such as the 2005 Joint Statement and 2012 Leap Day Agreement. For good reason, the Trump administration’s new national security strategy prioritizes ensuring that U.S military strength is “fully integrated with our allies and all of our instruments of power.” There is no reason to compromise that principle in exchange for empty promises from Pyongyang.

When it comes to dealing with North Korea, one of the most important innovations of the Trump administration is its decision to begin the process of holding Chinese banks, firms, and businessmen accountable for their illicit relationships with North Korea. For years, while Beijing turned a blind eye towards its own banks and business, Washington turned a blind eye to Beijing. Thus, as part of its policy of “maximum pressure,” the Trump administration issued Executive Order 13810, which authorizes the U.S. Treasury to sanction any individuals or entities involved in supporting North Korea.

In that regard, the Trump administration  has sanctioned dozens of Chinese entities and, for the first time, designated a mainland Chinese bank for money laundering on behalf of North Korea. That said, the administration is nowhere close to exhausting all of the tools it can employ to hold the Chinese government accountable.

While some may fret about how Beijing’s hardliners will respond to being labeled a rival and a competitor, China tends to be most cooperative when the U.S. shines a spotlight very directly on its enabling of North Korea. Once attention has shifted elsewhere, Beijing then returns to its old ways. Furthermore, both Trump’s speech and his new strategy make clear the U.S. will “seek areas of cooperation with our competitors.” This language suggests the U.S. is not looking to “contain” China, but rather hold Beijing accountable for its misdeeds to ensure a more productive relationship over the long term.  

If President Trump hopes to build a partnership with China that advances America’s national interests, that process has to begin by demonstrating to China that the U.S. will not waver for a moment in its focus on the North Korean threat and on accountability for all those who enable it. Typically, the advocates of engagement and partnership insist that kind words and goodwill gestures are the only means of influencing Chinese behavior. Yet that is the route to failure.

When it comes to North Korea, China will only become an American partner when it becomes clear that there is a price to pay for undermining sanctions and protecting Pyongyang from repercussions for its reckless provocations.

Mathew Ha is a research associate at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where David Adesnik is the Director of Research. Follow them on Twitter @Matjunsuk and @adesnik. Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy, @FDD.