July 29, 2017, 9:30 AM EDT
People watch as coverage of an ICBM missile test is displayed on a screen in a public square in Pyongyang on July 29.
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 is North Korea’s biggest trade partner and arguably has the most leverage on Kim Jong-un’s regime. But while Beijing appears willing to condemn its neighbor’s nuclear developments, analysts say its cautious policies remain focused on stability.
China on Saturday indeed 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.”THE CHICKEN AND THE EGG
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 because of dealings with North Korea, a move that could be a precursor to greater economic and financial pressure on Beijing to rein in its errant neighbor.
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China has repeatedly called for both sides to step back, proposing the U.S. halt military exercises in the region and North Korea freeze its missile and nuclear tests. The U.S. has dismissed that proposal, saying North Korea must first be willing to discuss stopping and rolling back its nuclear capabilities.
North Korea Isn't Backing Down
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.”
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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 outlets stepped up criticism of Kim’s regime.
North Korea’s decision to launch the ICBM on Friday from Jagang, a province on the border with China, could further raise tensions between the countries. Still, China’s biggest fears remain a collapse of Kim’s regime that prompts a protracted refugee crisis and a beefed-up U.S. military presence on its border.
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Despite the disagreement over THAAD, on the whole, China probably prefers Moon to the conservative South Korean government he replaced in May. Since taking office, Moon has sought to engage North Korea, calling for peace talks and saying he’d meet with 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 that could risk a retaliatory hit on South Korea. U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned in June that an armed conflict with North Korea would leave millions of residents in 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 more moderate measures against North Korea without doing anything that could collapse Kim’s 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."— With assistance by Ting Shi, Peter Martin, Keith Zhai, Heesu Lee, and Kanga Kong