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President Donald Trump has escalated his campaign-trail attacks on China since the election. But he needs Beijing’s help as North Korea draws ever nearer to the day when it can hit the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile. How Trump navigates the sensitive relationship with China will determine whether and how he defuses the coming crisis.
President Donald Trump has escalated his war of words with China since Election Day, raising questions about how he will enlist Beijing’s help with a frightening national security problem: North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
On Barack Obama’s watch, the secretive Stalinist regime in Pyongyang made enough progress on both fronts that, experts predict, it may be able to strike the U.S. mainland, possibly even the East Coast, in two to three years.
The Obama administration enlisted China and other world powers in two rounds of international sanctions, and left Trump options for further tightening the economic vise, according to administration and congressional sources.
Those punitive measures haven’t deterred North Korea, which announced in January that it could launch an intercontinental ballistic missile “at any time.” The United States responded that it would shoot down any missile, but the back-and-forth highlighted how international diplomacy and economic sanctions have not worked to date, leaving Trump very few options for facing down an escalating threat.
“North Korea’s growing capability is one of the most significant challenges the next administration will face. There are no simple solutions,” Vice President Joe Biden said in a January speech about nuclear policy. “We must continue working closely with the international community — including China — to convince North Korea to reverse course,” Biden added.
After Pyongyang’s January missile threat, Trump tweeted: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”
And “China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!“ the president-elect added.
China is the key to North Korea policy because it’s the smaller country’s patron, its source of food and fuel. Yet China has been in Trump’s sights: He and top aides have threatened a trade war and taken steps towards closer relations with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province. Trump will also likely confront China over its territorial ambitions, like the construction of artificial islands to further its claims in international waters. Experts are watching to see whether tensions on other issues hurt Sino-U.S. cooperation on North Korea.
Beijing doesn’t want North Korea to collapse, which would potentially send refugees streaming into China, to say nothing of raising doubts about the security of the country’s nuclear weapons. It also doesn’t want North and South Korea to reunite, fearing that the result would be a U.S.-aligned country on its borders.
“I think we have to be clear-eyed as to how far China will go and not get overly optimistic as to how far they’ll go,” Rex Tillerson told a January 11 hearing on his confirmation as Trump’s secretary of state.
“If China is not going to comply with … U.N. sanctions, then it’s appropriate for us — for the United States — to consider actions to compel them to comply,” he added.
That statement raised eyebrows even among some Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who wondered privately how the Trump administration would compel China to do something it considers profoundly risky — choking off trade and therefore risking North Korea’s collapse.
“There’s probably no bilateral relationship that carries more significance and where there’s also the potential if that relationship breaks down or goes into full conflict mode that everybody is worse off,” Obama told reporters in a December press conference.
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