Preoccupied with a border dispute with India escalating into a military conflict, China has done little to help resolve a festering crisis between the U.S. and North Korea. Ratcheting up the rhetoric Aug.7, 71-year-old President Donald told a press conference at his Bedminster Golf Resort in New Jersey Aug. 6 that any further provocation by North Korea could lead to “fire-and-fury,” threatening the Stalinist state with a devastating attack. While the press concluded it meant nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, Trump only warned of an unprecedented military display along the lines of “shock-and-awe” during the Iraq War. Whatever the president meant when he warned North Korean President Kim Jong-un about “fire-and-fury,” the message was intended to get Kim back to the bargaining table. North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Ho-yong said its nuke and ballistic missile program is non-negotiable.
North Korea believes it can only protect its sovereignty by threatening the U.S. with nuclear weapons. Trump has made clear that, unlike past U.S. administrations, he no longer has the luxury of “strategic patience,” a policy allowing the Stalinist regime to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile program. Calling Trump’s threats a “load of nonsense,” North Korea’s official news agency dismissed Trump threats as nothing more than hot air. Reacting to the war-of-words between Pyongyang and Washington, China wants the U.S. and North Korea to tone down the rhetoric. “China has different priorities and it’s clear that what they are,” said an unnamed Chinese diplomat. China and India are at loggerheads in the Himalaya’s Doklam plateau, where both sides claim sovereignty along the mountainous border. Dealing with the North Korea crisis is not high on China’s priority list.
Ruling against China in the Hague July 12, 2016, an international maritime tribunal dismissed China’s claim to territory on shallow islands in the South China Sea. China’s at odds with the international community in the South China Sea, now faces possible military confrontation along its Eastern border with India. “China is not too worried that the United States might suddenly attack North Korea. It is worried about THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Arial Defense].” Said Sun Zhe, co-director of Columbia University’s China Initiative in the School of International Affairs. China’s border dispute with India and dispute with Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea diverts its attention away from North Korea. China rejects Trump’s criticism about not doing enough to stop North Korea’s nuke and ballistic missile programs, insisting that they have limited clout.
Signing on to tough new economic sanctions against North Korea Aug. 6, China hoped to placate the White House’s demands that Kim give up his nuke and ballistic missile programs. “China has never owned North Korea, and North Korea has never listened to China’s suggestions,” said Zhang Liangui, a North Korean expert at China’s Central Party School. U.S. officials assume that China can do more to rein-in North Korea, something questioned by China experts. “Neither North Korea nor the United States listens to Chain. They’re too busy heading down the path to a military clash. There’s not much China can do. Chain can’t stop North Korea and can’t stop the United States,” said Liangui, presenting few good options as both parties careen toward a military confrontation. Chinese officials believe Trump is using North Korea to divert attention away from his domestic problems.
China sent some mixed signals about a war between the U.S. and North Korea, stating it would remain neutral with North Korea if it attacks first. “China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threatens U.S. soil and the U.S. retaliates, China should stay neutral,” said the prestigious state-run Global Times. Only if the U.S. strikes first and attempts regime change would China defend North Korea. China doesn’t really get Trump’s position on North Korea. It isn’t so much who attacks first but Kim’s continued work on an operational nuclear-armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile [ICBM]. Trump doesn’t want to deal with a nuclear-armed North Korea, capable of blackmailing the U.S. or its allies. Despite signing on to new sanctions, China doesn’t see Kim’s development of nuclear-armed ICBM as a legitimate reason for the U.S. to strike Pyongyang.
Trump’s promise to keep a nuclear-armed ICBM out of the hands of Kim Jong-un may be difficult to accomplish without taking out North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile sites. Getting Kim to the bargaining table won’t be easy since he believes the only real deterrence from outside threats are nuclear missiles. Trump’s Aug. 8 “fire-and-fury” comments were designed to put North Korea on notice that they’re dangerously close to crossing a red line. Whether or not Kim listens or engages in more provocation is anyone’s guess. Unless Kim is willing to put his nuke and ballistic missile program on the chopping block, Trump will be forced to degrade his nuke and ballistic missile capacity at some future point. Threatening the U.S. with nuclear war on numerous occasions, Kim has made his nuke and ballistic missile program a clear-and-present danger to U.S. national security.