China bets Trump won’t order military strike on North Korea

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, meets with his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, in the latter's Florida resort of Mar-a-Lago on April 6, 2017.


By BLOOMBERG NEWS Published: July 29, 2017

BEIJING (Tribune News Service) — China is betting that U.S. President Donald Trump won’t follow through on his threats of a military strike against North Korea as Beijing continues to provide a lifeline to Kim Jong Un’s regime.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson singled out China and Russia as “economic enablers” of North Korea after Kim Friday test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile Friday. While Tillerson said the U.S. wants a peaceful resolution to the situation, the top American general called his South Korean counterpart after the launch to discuss a possible military response.

China Saturday condemned the latest test while calling for restraint from all parties, a muted reaction to Pyongyang’s progress on an ICBM capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.

Despite Kim’s provocations, analysts said Beijing still sees the collapse of his regime as a more immediate strategic threat, and doubts Trump would pull the trigger given the risk of a war with North Korea that could kill millions.

“The military option the Americans are threatening won’t likely happen because the stakes will be too high,” said Liu Ming, director of the Korean Peninsula Research Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “It’s a pretext and an excuse to pile up pressure on China. It’s more like blackmail than a realistic option.”

U.S.-Chin relations soured after an initial honeymoon between Trump and President Xi Jinping. The U.S. last month sanctioned a regional Chinese bank, a shipping company and two Chinese citizens because of dealings with North Korea, which that could be a precursor to more economic and financial pressure on Beijing to rein in its errant neighbor.

China has repeatedly called for both sides to step back, proposing the U.S. halt military exercises in the region and North Korea freeze its missile and nuclear tests. The U.S. has dismissed that proposal, saying North Korea must first be willing to discuss stopping and rolling back its nuclear capabilities.

North Korea is “probably correct” in its view that it can survive sanctions long enough to build its arsenal to the point where the world has to accept it as a nuclear state, according to Andrew Gilholm, director of North Asia analysis at Control Risks Group. The U.S. is likely to make a “dramatic move” this year against China in a bid to stop that from happening, he said.

“If the U.S. really loses patience and moves against major Chinese banks or firms it will certainly impact North Korea’s financing, but I don’t see Beijing making a radical policy change under that kind of pressure,” Gilholm said from Seoul. “It’ll likely harden China’s insistence that Washington has to deal with Pyongyang, not coerce China into strangling it.”

China still accounts for about 90 percent of North Korea’s trade. North Korea warned China of “grave consequences” earlier this year after it banned coal imports, while Beijing’s Communist Party media stepped up criticism of Kim’s regime.

North Korea’s decision to launch the ICBM Friday from Jagang, a province on the border with China, could further raise tension between the countries. Still, China’s biggest fears remain a collapse of Kim’s regime that prompts a protracted refugee crisis and an increased U.S. military presence on its border.

Meanwhile, China’s dispute with South Korea over a missile shield risks flaring again. Seoul has partially installed a U.S. system known as THAAD despite Chinese protests. It stopped the installation, since the ICBM test President Moon Jae-in has called for talks with the U.S. on temporarily deploying more launchers. China said Saturday that THAAD would disrupt the region’s strategic balance.



Keith Zhai Heesu Lee and Kanga Kong contributed to this report.
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Kim Jong Un attends the Korean People's Army Tank Crew's Competition on April 1, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea.

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