In all likelihood Beijing stage-managed the Korean crisis in order to wrongfoot the United States–and it appears to have succeeded.
North Korea could not produce nuclear bombs or delivery systems without Chinese help. American media reported earlier this year that the South Korean navy recovered parts from a failed North Korean missile launch and determined that they were manufactured in China. American and Indian observers have long believed that China covertly supported North Korea’s nuclear program, just as it backed Pakistan’s nuclear program in the past.
China, to be sure, dislikes Kim Jong-un, but he gives China an important bargaining chip. President Trump was scheduled to give a major policy speech on America’s trade relationship with China last Friday, and its content likely would have been very tough, including tariffs on steel and aluminum exports and a major initiative to suppress Chinese theft of intellectual property. Late Thursday night the speech was canceled without explanation.
Asia Unhedged suspects that the White House stood down because it wanted China’s vote against North Korea at the United Nations Security council–which it got, along with Russia’s. That allowed the US President to claim a major diplomatic victory, as he did in his press conference Thursday afternoon. China can offer its good offices to rein in the seemingly irrational rulers of Pyongyang, while extracting concessions from the United States in return.
Xi Jinping doesn’t want a war, of course. Neither does Kim Jong-un, whose objective is regime survival. By acting as China’s cat’s-paw, Kim has made himself all the more useful to Beijing. And by drawing out the US president into a war of words, he has elevated his international stature. After threatening military action against North Korea, President Trump has nowhere to go. Either he has to take military action (which he doesn’t want, and which his military advisers emphatically do not want), or he has to accept the diplomatic solutions which China and Russia have so generously offered to devise. That’s a win-win for Beijing and a lose-lose for Washington.
Of course (as David P. Goldman writes on the main page today), Trump could go Xi one better, and use the Korean crisis as the pretext to abandon America’s longstanding commitment not to build a global ballistic missile defense system, an action that Beijing and Moscow would view as a strategic game-changer.