If Hillary Clinton is elected, her national security team plans to urgently address the growing North Korean nuclear and missile threat. That would surely raise tensions on the Korean peninsula — and it could also lead to an early and acrimonious confrontation between a Clinton administration and the Chinese government of Xi Jinping.
Xi is staunchly opposed to Clinton’s plan to drastically increase sanctions on the regime of Kim Jong Un. At the Munich Security Conference Core Group meeting here last week, Chinese officials and experts delivered a clear and unequivocal message to the visiting Westerners: China will not take any steps against Pyongyang that might increase the chance of a confrontation with the North Korean regime or encourage regime change on China’s border.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui said that although China might endorse a limited U.N. Security Council resolution in response to North Korea’s recent provocations, there’s no Chinese appetite for further pressure. The Chinese rationale is simple: Beijing values stability on the Korean peninsula more than it fears the growing prospect that North Korea will succeed in its goal of becoming a full-fledged nuclear power capable of striking the West.
“China will never allow war or chaos on the peninsula, and if that occurs that will help no one,” Zhang said. “We need to bring the issue back to the track of dialogue and consultation.”
In Washington, there’s bipartisan consensus that returning to the negotiating table without significantly more leverage against the Kim regime would be a futile and perhaps even dangerous misstep. At best, it would only repeat a failed pattern of bribing the North Korean government into a short-term pause in its mischief.
Top Clinton foreign policy advisers have been open about their intention to apply to North Korea a version of the playbook the Obama administration used with Iran. They are promising to drastically increase sanctions on Pyongyang before sitting down at the table. They are also considering secondary sanctions on foreign firms that enable North Korea’s illicit industries, which means punishing Chinese companies keeping Kim’s nuclear and missile industries afloat.
For the Chinese government, both of those ideas are seen as direct assaults on China’s primacy over an issue it considers a core interest. Rather than respond to the threat of sanctions by leaning on its client state, Beijing is more likely to buck Washington and fight back against the new policy.
“If the assumption of any new American administration is that China is the one to blame and we need to put pressure on or even punish China, that would be a big mistake,” said Dong Wang, professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University. China may retaliate with punitive measures against the United States in other areas of the bilateral relationship, he said.
Chinese officials at the conference warned that the proposed Clinton policy carries a risk of sparking a war on the Korean peninsula, and they expressed the suspicion that the unstated U.S. motivation was to spur regime change in Pyongyang.
The Clinton team has a plan to allay Chinese fears about regime change. Her advisers intend to push for a new dialogue with Beijing to discuss what would happen if the sanctions inadvertently cause the regime to collapse or if the regime implodes on its own due to mounting internal tensions.
“We are not talking about creating a regime change, but should something happen, China needs to know its interests are going to be protected,” Wendy Sherman, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs and a top Clinton campaign foreign policy adviser, said last month at the Meridian Global Leadership Summit. “The South Koreans believe in tightening the noose around North Korea. . . . We believe in that as well.”
But the Chinese government has no intention of entering a dialogue with the United States about planning for the day after the Kim regime falls. For Beijing, preventing the fall of the regime is a must, and therefore coordinating plans for its collapse is off-limits.
David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, said that addressing the North Korean nuclear threat will be the first serious test of the strategic relationship between the United States and China in the next administration, regardless of who wins.
“China is really crucial to this and we’d like to get a paradigm shift in the thinking of the Chinese leadership,” he said. “But if they continue to refuse to move into these discussions, the temptation for the American side is just to move unilaterally.”
Clinton’s advisers are threatening to do just that, but they should have no expectation that China is going to comply. In fact, the North Korea issue could mean that the first foreign crisis of a potential Clinton presidency will come not in the Middle East or with Russia, but in northeast Asia.
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