The Trump administration must choose: Contain China or take on North Korea

The Trump administration must choose: Contain China or take on North Korea
© Getty Images

In the coming months, the Trump administration will need to make a difficult decision when it comes to its foreign policy priorities in Asia. Will Washington decide to take on the challenge of our time, to contain a rising China that seeks to dominate the expansive Indo-Pacific region? Or, will they choose to take on North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal, perhaps as large as 65 total warheads, doing all it can to make sure Pyongyang at least is denied the resources to grow and maintain such weapons?

Such a choice won’t come easy, that is for sure. On the one hand, China has made it clear it intends to modify the international order in Asia to its liking. From declaring sections of the ocean as part of its territory, to pushing its weight around against its neighbors to building a world-class military that could challenge America in a future war, Beijing seeks to dominate Asia while hoping to push Washington out.

And then there is North Korea. Although the threat has been building for decades, last year’s multiple missile and nuclear tests proved to the world just how dangerous the Kim regime’s weapons of mass destruction really are. With over 1,000 missiles or more, nuclear weapons mounted on mobile launchers, as well as chemical and biological weapons, just one order by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un could result in the death of millions of people — not just in Asia, but perhaps even here in America.


It would seem that picking between the two priorities is an almost impossible task, but it must be done; there is little chance the Trump administration can achieve both objectives at the same time. Forced to choose, I would argue Washington will decide to do all it can to limit China’s rise, while tolerating — but never formally accepting — a nuclear North Korea.

The reasons are quite simple to understand. Conservative Asia watchers don’t want to admit it, but Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of tough economic sanctions is completely dependent on China’s willingness to enforce it. Over 90 percent of North Korea’s exports move through China in one way or another. If Beijing decides to weaken, or even stop, sanctions enforcement, as it has done in the past, America’s pressure campaign is nothing more than fantasy.

In fact, over the next few weeks, while evidence is mounting the pressure campaign might already be on the ropes, we could see China abandon its efforts to help America limit North Korea’s nuclear efforts. Thanks to a trade war that seems to be getting more worrisome by the day, Beijing will have little incentive to help Washington with anything of importance, let alone North Korea. In fact, China might seek to use sanctions enforcement as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations. Trump won’t back off the tariffs in one industry, or seek a compromise? Fine, China could retaliate by opening the border with North Korea, or even start helping Kim build even better missile or nuclear technology.

So, what should Washington choose? Although it pains me to acknowledge that America can’t effectively take on both Beijing and Pyongyang at the same time, China is clearly the bigger of the two threats and must be America’s top foreign policy priority in Asia — and globally. With the world’s second-largest economy and military, prone to coercive trade practices that threaten American jobs, and a leadership committed to challenge Washington’s long-term interests, the China challenge is worthy of our focus.

There will be those who can say we can surely take on both nations, that we can both contain China’s aspirations and eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program, if only we have enough will, ingenuity, or persistence. Some will argue that if Beijing does not cooperate we could sanction, or even use our control of the international finance system to punish their banks, one of the main money laundering channels of the Kim regime. As much as I would love to see that happen, realistically, such an action could damage the globally economy, hurting our own industries in the process. But, judging by China’s actions in the past when we took such a step, China could decide to retaliate against U.S. businesses operating in China or even take more drastic — and perhaps military — actions.

No one should ever dismiss how dangerous North Korea is, yet there is little we can do, short of declaring what would be a disastrous war in which countless people would die, to eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear program without China’s cooperation. And, since that cooperation most likely never will come in the middle of a trade war, it’s time to prioritize. That means finally making China America’s top national security priority.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded in 1994 by President Richard M. Nixon, and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. He previously worked on the foreign policy team of the 2016 Ted Cruz presidential campaign and as foreign policy communications manager at the Heritage Foundation, editor-in-chief of The Diplomat, and as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views voiced in this article are his own.