The Trump administration’s foreign policy strategy can be difficult to analyze because even when the president arrives at correct conclusions, it’s often based on incorrect premises. Trump is angry Wednesday, following a successful long-range missile test by North Korea, that China hasn’t done enough to put pressure on Pyongyang.
It isn’t wrong to suggest that Xi Jinping’s government is not fully committed to the cause of pressuring Kim Jong-un. China–North Korea trade grew 37 percent in the first quarter of this year, and even after Beijing announced in February that it was banning North Korean coal imports, there were reports that coal trucks were continuing to cross the border. The basic dynamic of the China–North Korea relationship is that while Beijing is certainly not happy with Kim Jong-un or his nuclear ambitions, the Chinese government is even more concerned about maintaining a buffer between itself and U.S. forces in South Korea as well as the possible consequences of the Kim regime’s chaotic collapse. So, China is willing to pressure North Korea, but only up to a point.
This is obvious—and is as true today as it was during the 2016 campaign, when Trump repeatedly implied that China was backing North Korea only because of the Obama administration’s fecklessness. It was also still true in April, after Trump met with Xi at Mar-a-Lago and seemed inexplicably convinced that he had achieved a historic breakthrough and had finally talked China into taking North Korea seriously. In interview after interview, Trump touted his “great relationship” and “chemistry” with Xi and cited China’s willingness to help out with the North Korea situation as the reason for dropping nearly all his previous criticism of China on trade and other issues. Even in late May, after a North Korean ballistic missile test, Trump tweeted that “China is trying hard!”
In June, after American student Otto Warmbier died after being released from North Korean custody, Trump decided that the strategy of working with China “has not worked out,” though at that point, he was still defending China’s efforts, tweeting, “At least I know China tried!” After Sunday’s test, he seems to have decided China wasn’t serious after all, tweeting, “So much for China working with us.” The trade war seems to be back on as well. (In contrast to his critique of China, Trump has been conspicuously quiet about Russia’s growing trade with North Korea.)
There was reason to be skeptical that Trump and Xi’s remarkable chemistry had somehow transformed China’s foreign policy. But even if it had, Trump is showing remarkably little faith in his own efforts. The U.S. has been trying various approaches for more than 20 years, with little to no success, to deter North Korea’s nuclear program, yet Trump seems shocked that he hasn’t seen immediate results in just three months.
The sales pitch for Trump’s presidency was always that America’s various intractable problems were not actually hard to solve but persisted only because the country was led by “very, very stupid people.” This is a dubious proposition on domestic policy, but even more so in international affairs where the United States’ leverage to influence events in foreign countries is limited. Disturbingly, the president seems to have actually believed that through toughness and deal-making, he’d be able to instantly produce his desired foreign-policy outcomes.
Now that he’s decided diplomacy with China has failed, it’s not clear what Trump’s Plan B is. He’s repeatedly stated that the U.S. is willing to act alone to contain North Korea but that could mean any number of actions, none of them particularly promising. Economic pressure will have little effect without international support. A unilateral military strike could provoke retaliation against military and civilian targets in neighboring countries like South Korea and Japan. Meanwhile, North Korea is moving closer and closer to its goal of a nuclear-armed intercontinental missile and doesn’t seem at all fazed by the president’s threats.