When China’s president Xi Jinping meets President Trump in Florida this week, he will grapple with China’s greatest threat in decades — the fallout should Trump take out North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
Xi heard U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s assessment last week that the U.S. considers North Korea more of a threat than Iran, and he believes U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s declaration that the Obama era of “strategic patience” is over. Xi also realizes that Trump — whom many Chinese consider no less a loose cannon than North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un — has a cabinet full of hawks and a free hand to act unilaterally and without warning whenever he believes it’s time to strike.
American action could come soon, since North Korea has month by month been increasing its capabilities. Some believe North Korea is already able to launch a nuclear strike against U.S. bases and U.S. allies in Asia, and within four years many expect it to be able to strike the U.S. mainland. Some believe it may already be capable of hitting San Francisco, although with low probability of an accurate hit.
From China’s perspective, a U.S. attack on North Korea’s launch facilities and its 10 to 16 nuclear bombs would be disastrous. North Korea’s million-man, 4,000-tank army would swamp South Korea while pummelling it with hundreds of chemically armed missiles and tens of thousands of artillery shells. A South Korean-U.S. counter-attack would follow in what could become a protracted war, including one involving nuclear weapons if the North’s arsenal remained operational. U.S. troops would be fighting on the Korean peninsula, and possibly soon facing Chinese troops — China would be expected to invade North Korea from the north to prevent a complete reunification of the Korean peninsula, and to maintain a buffer between it and South Korea. China wants at all costs to prevent U.S. troops stationed on its southern border.
Even a wildly successful pre-emptive U.S. strike that decapitated the North Korean leadership and avoided all-out civil war between North and South Korea could be calamitous for China. In the chaos following a U.S. attack, North Koreans by the hundreds of thousands would likely flee into China, leading to the humanitarian crisis China has long feared. Within North Korea, the dominant clans would likely war among each other, possibly drawing China into the conflict to ensure victory for pro-China factions.
The U.S. won’t wait for a regime change that may never come and it has already refused China’s offer to negotiate a halt to North Korea’s testing of its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for a halt by the U.S. and South Korea of their annual joint military exercises. The U.S. has instead all-but announced that meaningful advances by North Korea in its nuclear program would be met militarily. Given the resolve with which Trump has engaged ISIL in the Middle East, and his proclivity to act without forewarning, Xi knows his Florida meeting may be his only opportunity to size up Trump before deciding on what will be the best of his few poor options.
Trump’s demand that the Chinese squeeze the North Koreans into submission can’t work on Kim. The U.S. overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi after he gave up his nuclear weaponry, and his subsequent brutal assassination, helped convince Kim that his own survival depends on the deterrence of his nuclear bombs. In any case, the Chinese have few sanctions to impose on North Korea, which has shown that it is willing to make its populace endure any hardship, and no stomach for alienating North Korea, which it sees as an ally against the pro-American array of Asian countries — South Korea, Japan and Taiwan among them — pitted against it.
China’s best option then becomes engineering an overthrow of Kim’s ruling family, and the installation of a puppet pro-Chinese regime. But that option, too, is fraught with peril. The North Koreans, if anything, hate Americans less than the Chinese, their former masters over much of the past 2,000 years. A failed Chinese-led coup attempt against Kim could see the loss of an ally, and the gain of a neighbour harbouring a grudge.
Xi has no good options and neither does Trump, who can’t count on Xi to turn on Kim, and can’t count on Kim to be cowed. “All options are on the table,” the U.S. likes to say. But all options are bad.