Say what you will about our 45th president – and the left and so-called NeverTrump Republicans have a lot to say – know this: The man does keep his promises.
China knows this all too well. President Trump promised—and delivered—a get-tough-on-China strategy that tries to correct the appeasement policy of the Obama years in all areas where Washington and Beijing compete, but with special emphasis on correcting a massive trade imbalance to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars per year. As one Chinese diplomat based in Beijing told me: “Trump is different [than Obama]—very different. In many respects, we don’t know how to deal with him as he seems intent on blocking our every move—to contain our rise. He is a fearsome opponent, and we are still trying to build our own counter-strategy. So far, we are collectively a little lost on how to deal with him.”
And deal with him they must. Trump has made bringing balance back to a U.S-China bilateral trade relationship—worth hundreds of billions of dollars and millions of jobs on both sides of the Pacific Ocean—one of his most important goals. He has not feared slapping China with massive tariffs, an action that once seemed unthinkable only a few years ago. And Trump seems willing to go even further if Beijing will not sign on to a fair-trade deal that takes at least some of America’s economic concerns into account.
North Korea also knows that Trump matches his words with deeds. After calling out the so-called “hermit kingdom” throughout 2017—and hitting the rogue nation with biting economic sanctions—Trump also offered and held two rounds of talks with Pyongyang, meeting North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un in historic fashion in Singapore and Hanoi, Vietnam. And with the Kim regime testing new missiles late last week, breaking a 500-plus day pause in such testing, the administration is once again scrambling to ascertain the best course of action.
Beijing would have little reason to enforce any sanctions on North Korea if U.S.-China trade talks fail and a full-blown trade war ensues.
Now for Trump comes the hard part. His Asia policy, with the twin goals of trying to contain a rising China that is committed to becoming the region’s dominant power and denuclearizing North Korea, is becoming increasingly impossible to accomplish simultaneously. Thanks to a strange set of circumstances, the administration is slowly reaching the day where it will be forced to make the most difficult of choices: take on China or North Korea.
Picking between these two priorities might seem like an almost impossible task. However, certain facts may help amend the difficulty of making such a choice in the first place.
While many Asia watchers don’t want to admit it, Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of tough economic sanctions on Pyongyang is completely dependent on China’s willingness to enforce it. Over 90 percent of North Korea’s exports move through Beijing 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, at any point in the foreseeable future, we could see China limit its efforts to help America limit North Korea’s nuclear efforts by weakening the sanctions whenever the tensions are running high between our two nations. Beijing, for instance, would have little reason to enforce any sanctions on North Korea if U.S.-China trade talks fail and a full-blown trade war ensues. In fact, Beijing would almost certainly use Pyongyang to seek leverage against Washington. “We could open the border with North Korea very quickly, ending the sanctions in days if we wanted,” a Chinese diplomatic contact based in Europe warned. “If Trump wants a big trade war, we will give him a big headache with North Korea.”
There are, however, some who have tried to solve this problem, but would only make matters far worse. Gordon Chang, a fixture on conservative media and perhaps one of the most sought-after China as well as North Korea commentators, advocates placing sanctions on Chinese banks who violate the existing sanctions regime. “In reality, the U.S. had already restrained itself. Too much, in my view,” Chang explained, “Washington needs, at this time, to move beyond actions against minor bad actors and impose severe penalties on large institutions. First among the targets should be one of China’s so-called Big Four banks, perhaps the Bank of China.”
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.
But wouldn’t going after such a bank, as Chang suggests, have wide-ranging economic ramifications? Bank of China, for example, has nearly $3 trillion in assets. According to Chang, however, it might be worth the risk, noting that “[T]he willingness to endure ‘major economic consequences’ is not an argument for refraining from crippling a large Chinese bank. On the contrary, it is the reason why imposing death sentences on China’s institutions would be so effective.” He adds, “Chinese leaders need to see that Washington is determined to stop North Korea, and they are not going to take America seriously unless America is willing to accept costs to do so.”
While Chang’s solution is clearly bold, it is divorced from any sort of political reality, in that taking such actions will clearly have a negative impact on the U.S. economy—and endanger the chances of Trump winning a second term. And Trump, as in any politician, would never take such a massive risk.
Short of declaring economic war on China, then, what should Washington do?
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 and a leadership committed to challenging Washington’s long-term interests, China is worthy of America’s long-term geostrategic focus.
North Korea, for all its saber-rattling, is an impoverished, third-world nation that has spent all its national treasure on a nuclear deterrent that is only usable for self-defense. If Kim dared to strike America or its allies with nuclear weapons the North would be destroyed in a matter of minutes. The U.S. military, being rebuilt thanks to the president’s leadership, can deter North Korea indefinitely, ensuring the Kim regime is no threat to the region unless it wants to commit national suicide.
The choice, therefore, for America and for Trump is clear: take on China.
Harry J. Kazianis, director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest.