BEIJING—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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.