U.S.-China cooperation the ‘only viable way’ to solve the North Korea crisis

Shortly after Air Force One took off from Beijing Capital International Airport, President Donald Trump revealed that China would implement new sanctions against North Korea. “President Xi of China has stated that he is upping the sanctions against #NoKo. Said he wants them to denuclearize. Progress is being made,” Trump tweeted.

Can the United States and China cooperate with North Korea now?

North Korea’s determined and unremitting nuclear tests are posing a huge risk to China: the Chinese government now estimates that North Korea already has some 40 to 60 nuclear weapons and if any were used during a conflict, the consequences for China would be devastating. The reality is, if a war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, China, not the United States, will be on the frontline to deal with the possible nuclear fallout, environmental nightmare, and a mass migration of refugees.

The Chinese government’s current North Korea policy – dubbed “double freeze” – North Korea to freeze the development of its nuclear weapons, in return for the U.S. to freeze military exercises on the Peninsula, however, is a proposal that has no chance of succeeding.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has dismissed Beijing’s “double freeze” as “insulting.” “When a rogue regime has a nuclear weapon and an intercontinental ballistic missile pointed at you, you do not take steps to lower your guard,” stated Ambassador Haley at the U.N. Security Council, “no one would do that. We certainly would not.”

“Serious discussion of aligning U.S. and Chinese strategic efforts,” writes Michael Green, Senior Vice President for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “has to begin with a recognition that this ‘freeze for freeze’ idea is a non-starter. Any self-imposed constraints on the readiness of the United States, South Korea, and Japan to deter a clear and present danger from the North in exchange for an ephemeral testing halt would only weaken deterrence and the credibility of American alliances… it would be weakening U.S. preparedness to defend allies based on an increasing threat to the American homeland with absolutely no diminishment of the threat.”

Since neither North Korea nor the United States and its allies showed any interest in China’s “freeze for freeze” plan, China watchers believe that the government of President Xi Jinping is “having to consider other alternatives.” For now, saysMichael Green, “the episodic tactical cooperation and strategic mistrust characterizes U.S.-China interactions on North Korea. As the North Korean threat becomes increasingly acute,” however, there is a real chance for the United States and China “to move towards a more genuine strategic cooperation on what is ultimately a mutually shared threat.”

“The Chinese discourse toward North Korea,” says Kim Heung-kyu, director of the China Policy Institute at Ajou University in South Korea, “has greatly shifted under President Xi Jinping. Given this shift, China now could be willing to join a trilateral dialogue with the United States and South Korea on North Korea.”

Indeed, Beijing seems to have finally come to a realization that while “North Korea is the land of bad options,” with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program advancing so fast and so relentlessly, doing nothing will not be an option either. China’s most recent decision to “put the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) conflict to rest and return to exchange and cooperation in all areas with South Korea” is sending a clear signal to the United States and its allies that Beijing is now seeking a U.S.-China-South Korea trilateral cooperation on North Korea.

And the United States and China do share some short-term interests on the Korean Peninsula-neither power is interested in a military solution of the North Korea crisis, neither country, despite Washington’s rhetoric to the contrary, wants to topple the Kim regime and see North Korea descend into chaos, and neither Beijing nor Washington will allow a nuclear-armed North Korea to further fuel tensions in an already unstable Northeast Asia.

Consequently, as Ken Moak of Asia Times puts it, “Whether one believes him or not, Chinese President Xi Jinping is right,” a U.S.-China cooperation is the “only viable way” to solve the North Korea crisis.

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.