Why the Fight With North Korea Is Really About China

5 minute read

In recent weeks, President Trump and Pyongyang have escalated their war of words over North Korea’s nuclear weapons testing, with both sides hinting it could end with a nuclear conflict.

But while the rhetoric has focused on North Korea, the Central Intelligence Agency is just as worried about China.

CIA analysts say the North Korean tests have heightened the concerns the U.S. has about managing the rise of China, which sees the conflict as a way of keeping the U.S. off-balance in Asia while maintaining its influence over its immediate neighbors.

“It is, to us, not just an immediate national security threat,” the CIA’s Michael Collins, deputy assistant director for East Asia Mission Center, said last week at a national security conference at George Washington University. “It is forcing us to think about the long-term management of China.”

The North Korea problem looks different from Beijing’s eyes than it does from Washington’s. Neither country wants a nuclearized North Korea, and China, like Washington, condemned North Korea’s recent missile launches and backed the United Nations’ latest sanctions against North Korea in September. But China’s strategic interests in the region are different from the U.S.’s objectives. China is focused on expanding its regional influence in Southeast Asia, and in the long term, increasing its global might.

“China still looks at the North Korea problem through the lens of what the U.S. is doing,” the CIA’s Yong Suk Lee, deputy assistant director for the Korea Mission Center, said at the same security conference last week. “China’s strategic goal is to frustrate the U.S. and maintain a permanent division of the Korean peninsula.”

Division on the peninsula is especially important for China because it helps counter the impression that the U.S. could contain China’s rise. North Korea serves as a “buffer state” for China amid strong U.S. alliances with its neighbors, South Korea and Japan. Many in China also see the demise of North Korea as tied to the rise of South Korea, and thus U.S. power.

“It would be perceived as a victory for America, a defeat for China,” says longtime diplomat Christopher Hill, an assistant Secretary of State under George W. Bush who is now dean of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

This calculus does not mean China is not concerned about nuclear war, but rather that China has its own geostrategic timeline. Beijing would rather deal with a nuclear North Korea later, ideally when Chinese power is greater than the U.S.’s, says the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair, Michael Green.

“A nuclear North Korea, if it behaves, is acceptable,” he says, “and far more acceptable than the regime collapsing and China finding on its border a unified Korea that is aligned with the United States, or China finds all of the chaos that comes from war on the peninsula.”

Chinese are split on the issue, says Hill. But for some, the cure for a nuclear North Korea may be worse than the disease. “Especially from the vantage point of China’s national security state, they have real concerns about the perception that the U.S. has once and for all won the cold war on the Korean peninsula,” Hill says. “There could be concerns about what this would to do to China’s security policy, that is, if the U.S. put listening posts or troops up on the Yellow River, on the Chinese border.”

But already, China is facing a cost. South Korea has installed and deployed launchers of the U.S. anti-missile THAAD system, designed to shoot down missiles mid-flight. Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. are forming a closer alliance. Missile defense technology is still only linked bilaterally, but multilateral strength is growing more broadly among U.S. allies, who are doing joint missile defense exercises. “Their worst nightmare is coming together,” says the American Enterprise Institute’s Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies.

It is complicated because China also wants stable relationship with U.S. “They are rivals, they are not an enemy,” Blumenthal says.

China also might not have the luxury of pushing action on North Korea down the road. Pyongyang conducted its sixth nuclear test last month. Weeks later, Trump expanded the Treasury Departments’ ability to target those who financially engage North Korea. Trump also said that Chinese president Xi Jinping told Chinese banks to stop doing business with North Korea, which the Chinese government has not confirmed. “They have to respond to the Trump administration’s pressure,” says Green.

Just how deeply the Trump Administration wants to engage China in dealing with North Korea remains to be seen. Trump is scheduled to visit China in November. Last month Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made his second visit to China. His trip was slated to focus on the North Korean crisis, but events were overshadowed when Trump tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time” negotiating with Kim Jong Un.

“As soon as Tillerson went out there, he essentially got recalled by a tweet,” Hill says. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done with China, but unfortunately there is no one in place to do that work.”

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