China is betting that U.S. President Donald Trump won’t make good on his threats of a military strike against North Korea, with Beijing continuing to provide a lifeline to Kim Jong Un’s regime. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson singled out China and Russia as “economic enablers” of North Korea after Kim on Friday test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile for the second time in a matter of weeks. While Tillerson said the U.S. wants a peaceful resolution to the tensions, the top American general called his South Korean counterpart after the launch to discuss a potential military response.
China on Saturday condemned the latest test while calling for restraint from all parties, a muted reaction to Pyongyang’s progress on an ICBM capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. Despite Kim’s provocations, analysts said Beijing still sees the collapse of his regime as a more immediate strategic threat, and doubts Trump would pull the trigger given the risk of a war with North Korea that could kill millions.
“The military option the Americans are threatening won’t likely happen because the stakes will be too high,” said Liu Ming, director of the Korean Peninsula Research Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “It’s a pretext and an excuse to pile up pressure on China. It’s more like blackmail than a realistic option.”
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Relations between the world’s biggest economies have soured after an initial honeymoon between Trump and President Xi Jinping. The U.S. last month sanctioned a regional Chinese bank, a shipping company and two Chinese citizens over dealings with North Korea, which could be a precursor to greater economic and financial pressure on Beijing to rein in its errant neighbor.
Trump has expressed periodic public frustration with Beijing over the pace of its efforts to curtail Kim. On Saturday he again linked China’s actions to the broader U.S.-China trade relationship. “I am very disappointed in China,” he said in a series of Twitter posts. “Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!”
Hours later, Xi called on China to speed up its military modernization, telling troops at an army parade that “the world isn’t safe at this moment.” “A strong army is needed now more than ever,” he said, without specifically addressing North Korea or Trump’s comments. China’s biggest fears related to North Korea remain a collapse of Kim’s regime that sparks a protracted refugee crisis, and a beefed-up U.S. military presence on its border.
It has repeatedly called for both sides to step back, proposing the U.S. halt military drills in the region and North Korea freeze weapons tests. The U.S. has dismissed that proposal, saying North Korea must first be willing to discuss rolling back its nuclear program. On Saturday, the U.S. announced that two Air Force B-1B bombers conducted bilateral exercises with South Korean and Japanese fighter jets in response to the ICBM test.
North Korea is “probably correct” in its view that it can survive sanctions long enough to build its arsenal to the point where the world has to accept it as a nuclear state, according to Andrew Gilholm, director of North Asia analysis at Control Risks Group. The U.S. is likely to make a “dramatic move” this year against China in a bid to stop that from happening, he said.
“If the U.S. really loses patience and moves against major Chinese banks or firms it will certainly impact North Korea’s financing, but I don’t see Beijing making a radical policy change under that kind of pressure,” Gilholm said from Seoul. “It’ll likely harden China’s insistence that Washington has to deal with Pyongyang, not coerce China into strangling it.”
China’s relations with its neighbor and ally have become more fraught, though China still accounts for about 90 percent of North Korea’s trade. North Korea warned China of “grave consequences” earlier this year after it banned coal imports, while Beijing’s Communist Party media stepped up criticism of Kim’s regime.
The latest ICBM test also risks boosting tensions between China and South Korea over a missile shield. Seoul has partially installed the U.S.’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile shield despite Chinese protests. It had halted that roll out under the new administration of President Moon Jae-in, but after the ICBM test Moon called for talks with the U.S. on temporarily deploying more launchers. China warned on Saturday that Thaad would disrupt the region’s strategic balance.
The U.S. carried out a test of Thaad on Sunday, the Pentagon said in a statement. A medium-range target ballistic missile was launched from a plane over the Pacific Ocean, then tracked and intercepted by a system located in Alaska.
Despite the disagreement over Thaad, on the whole China probably prefers Moon to the conservative government he replaced in May. Since taking office, Moon has sought to engage North Korea, calling for peace talks and saying he’d meet Kim under the right conditions.
Moon’s dovish views on North Korea make it likely he’ll oppose a U.S. missile strike on North Korea. U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also warned in June that an armed conflict with North Korea would leave Seoul facing casualties “unlike anything we’ve seen in 60 or 70 years.”
As relations with the U.S. cool, China has boosted ties with Russia. The countries blocked U.S.-led efforts to expand penalties against North Korea in a draft UN Security Council resolution condemning its first ICBM test on July 4. Those ties are likely to strengthen after Trump said he’d tighten sanctions on Russia for meddling in the U.S. election and aggression in Ukraine.
To placate Trump, China will likely take some moderate measures against North Korea without doing anything that could collapse the regime, said Gilholm from Control Risks.
“China has a lot of room to step up pressure on Pyongyang while staying well short of a really destabilizing ‘cut-off,’” he said. “Personally I don’t think North Korea is going to roll over and give up its nuclear survival card even under a life-threatening level of economic pressure.”