With "Trump America" in place now, one of the areas that the East Asian geopolitical analysts pay attention to is how the Trump variable would enter into Sino-North Korea relations. First, China is wary that the tough-talking Trump may take a much harder line toward North Korea that may, in turn, "destabilize" China's strategic neighborhood environment.
Beijing has a habit of suspecting that Washington gets tougher on North Korea when it wants to warn China. This might sound odd to outside observers, but "this pattern" is a well-entertained item among regional strategists. It also reveals how China identifies its geopolitical vulnerability more aligned with North Korea, than with the United States. At the extension of the logic, it also underscores the potential limitation of cooperation Washington wants to have from China, so as to jointly deal with the regional pariah. That won't happen, however, to borrow Trump's New Year's resolution on North Korea.
In fact, when Trump blurted "That won't happen" as a reaction to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's threat of test-launching an ICBM (with an obvious connotation that its reach could hit continental America), it was China that was also alarmed. Trump's swift Twitter warning against North Korea's seemingly unstoppable ICBM libido was perceived by China as a firm deterrence posture by Washington on the matter.
A North Korea-fired ICBM landing on American soil is tantamount to hurting U.S. "core interest," a Chinese analyst observed. The term, "core interest," is jargon with a specific definition when it is used in the Chinese security context. According to the Chinese Communist Party, "core interest" is the top-level national interest among the three interests (core, major and general). Specifically, it is an interest the "nation's survival" (guojia de shengcun) depends on, and therefore there can be "no room for compromise" (burong tuoxie).
So, China's perception of attaching a cardinal graveness to North Korea's possible ICBM launch and America's possible retaliation makes Beijing jittery, as it destabilizes China's backyard. Furthermore, this warning came from the mouth of Trump – a human being China finds inhumanly challenging to pin down, let alone predict.
China expects the Trumpian push on Beijing to restrain Pyongyang, to be more demanding than Obama's. Trump said China has "total control" over North Korea. "China should solve that problem," he declared.
Whether China really has that level of leverage over North Korea is debatable, but what matters is Trump's "thinking" on the matter. He is now the president of the United States (despite some Americans' denial). Trump's thinking will have decisive policy implications regarding how the U.S. government will approach the topic from now on. Supportive of this interpretation, Trump's pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said China can "make magic" on the North Korean issue. The question is, will China make that magic?
As things stand now, and based on how China has been implementing the latest U.N. sanctions, China appears to be on a course that cannot afford to meet American expectations. The latest U.N.-approved sanctions, which China also signed, have been rolling in the aftermath of North Korea's successful fifth nuclear test – reportedly its biggest yet.
While giving its nod behind the international body's move, China yet insisted the sanctions not hurt the North Korean people's "livelihood" (minsheng). The defining feature of "minsheng" is that, it is China that defines it, and it is China that enforces it. When the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was asked to define it, Wang circumscribed it by saying: "People know what it means when they hear it," during a press conference last year. Wang's Zen-like answer was masterful, but the "minsheng" clause serves to remain as one of the two main challenges to the task of implementing the sanctions, in both spirit and flesh.
The other challenge in the sanctions scheme is the so-called "conflict of interest" between the local governments and the central government. The local economy of a city such as Dandong, a Chinese city that borders North Korea, relies largely on its trade with North Korea. Sanctions naturally hurt the city's economy. Therefore, enforcing sanctions goes against the local interests. Moreover, the provincial officials' job evaluation is also significantly based on the local economy's growth. The official's local popularity also suffers when he strictly enforces the sanctions. "So, what would you do about the sanctions if you were the mayor of Dandong?" a Chinese interlocutor asked.
China also bemoans the lack of "incentives" from the United States for Beijing's enforcing the sanctions. As the U.S.-China relations are expected to enter into a "conflict phase" under the Trump administration, China may find itself much less enthused to play the role of a "hit man" against its problematic neighbor. On the contrary, as North Korea is one of the few countries in the world that openly challenges the U.S. leadership, China will find Pyongyang more useful than before, in corroborating China's geopolitical interests. Taken together, Sino-North Korea relations in 2017 will not only depend on their mutual mojo (a topic we'll cover later), but also largely leveraged by the U.S.-China relationship.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org