For several months, the Trump administration has held off using various tools at its disposal to increase the pressure on China to increase its pressure on North Korea. But as the crisis worsens, it’s clearer than ever that China is not going to voluntarily do what’s needed to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table under terms the United States can accept.
That’s why officials and experts are increasingly calling on the Trump administration to move forward with the tough measures against China that were always contemplated as part of its stated strategy of “maximum pressure” followed by engagement. Team Trump hasn’t gotten close to maximum pressure so far. The best way to move in that direction now is to sanction more Chinese entities that support the illegal and dangerous activities of the Kim Jong Un regime.
Directly pressuring China is risky strategy for sure, and it could upend the U.S.-China relationship as we know it. The Chinese surely could retaliate. But confronting China is less risky than increasing tensions with North Korea through bellicose rhetoric that could lead to a nuclear war. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said today he is depending on the global “pressure campaign” to work, but unless China feels that pressure, there’s little hope for that policy to succeed.
“China has been able to free-ride on the North Korea issue for way too long,” said former White House official Victor Cha, who is rumored to be the leading candidate to be President Trump’s ambassador to South Korea. “You put pressure on China to be part of the solution. But if they don’t want to do that, they are part of the problem, and that means listing more entities.”
The Treasury Department has new sanctions on Chinese entities at the ready, officials and diplomatic sources tell me. The Trump administration has discussed more sanctions on Chinese entities with allied governments, who would be encouraged to follow suit. The June announcement of U.S. sanctions on four Chinese entities was a shot across the bow, but the next round would be designed to hit China’s business with Pyongyang hard.
For years, if not decades, Beijing has played a steady game of supporting U.S. pressure on North Korea just enough to appease Washington while overwhelmingly supporting the North Korean regime with subsidies, fuel, trade and diplomatic cover. Chinese businesses enable the advancement of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs while Chinese banks launder and store the regime’s money.
Last week’s U.N. Security Council resolution is the perfect example of this duplicitous strategy. China appeared to be supporting increased pressure on North Korea but may not actually implement the sanctions, Cha said, which stop short of getting at Kim’s real vulnerabilities anyway.
“China is going to play up the fact that they signed on to the resolution as a big concession on their part, but after two [intercontinental ballistic missile] tests they really didn’t have a choice in the matter,” he said.
Beijing may bristle at new sanctions on Chinese companies, banks and businessmen, but there are ways to do it that minimize the diplomatic blowback. For example, the U.S. can present the sanctions as enforcing U.S. laws rather than a diplomatic challenge, as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin did in June.
“If we have evidence that Chinese entities are violating U.S. law, why shouldn’t we enforce our laws,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner. “We’ve been giving Chinese entities immunity for years and it hasn’t led to China helping us solve the North Korea problem, so why continue doing it?”
U.S. officials say that sanctions on Chinese entities were planned for in the administration’s comprehensive policy review on North Korea, but only after an unspecified period of time was allowed for Trump to try to convince Chinese President Xi Jinping to voluntarily bring North Korea to heel. Trump has tweeted that he no longer believes Xi is willing to do that.
The whole Chinese shadow play for the last 25 years has been to play the role of North Korea’s defense lawyer and financial enabler while pretending to be a responsible stakeholder in the international community, said Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute.
“Every president learns at his own speed that the Chinese government will not carry the United States’ water on the North Korea issue,” he said. “Trump has learned that a little more quickly than his predecessors.”
If Trump does push the Chinese government to bear more of the carrying costs for defending North Korea, there will be a change in temperature and dynamics in the U.S.-China relationship. There may be anxiety in other governments and even in U.S. businesses that operate in China.
“It’s a very powerful weapon. We should not yield it casually. We should realize it’s the beginning of a new era when we do this,” said former North Korea nuclear negotiator Joel Wit. “But if this is as serious as we think it is, then using this cudgel is warranted.”
The other option is to sit down with the North Koreans now, with no preconditions, if possible. Wit said the United States needs to step up its diplomatic efforts directly with the North Koreans to find out if dialogue is possible now. But if Trump can’t stomach that — and if we are trying to avoid a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula — he should follow through on the “maximum pressure” strategy he promised, and that means calling China’s North Korea bluff.