U.S.-China relations are likely to benefit from the election of Donald Trump as president. Hillary Clinton's policy toward China emphasized confrontation. In a leaked email she was quoted as privately threatening to "ring China with missile defense" if Beijing didn't bring North Korea to heel. She also said Americans should "put more of our fleet in the area."
While Trump primarily emphasized trade issues, Clinton's approach would have risked a military confrontation while adding new tensions to U.S.-China relations. This approach also would have driven Beijing closer to the ever provocative Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The DPRK's nuclear program has become Northeast Asia's biggest security challenge. Today the North is believed to have enough nuclear materials for up to 20 nuclear weapons. By 2020 Pyongyang could have at least 50 and perhaps as many as 100 nukes.
Marry such an arsenal to accurate long-range missiles and Pyongyang's mischief-making ability would expand dramatically. China understands the dangers and wants to keep the Korean peninsula nuclear-free.
However, the People's Republic of China does not feel directly threatened by North Korea's nuclear program. In contrast, the PRC fears collapse, chaos, and refugees at its doorstep, which would be made far more likely if Beijing applied the kind of economic pressure demanded by America.
Moreover, at a time when Washington appears to be attempting to contain China, Beijing does not want to destroy its one military ally and promote Korean reunification, which would yield a more powerful American ally hosting U.S. troops, which could end up on the PRC's border.
Finally, China blames Washington for the "North Korea problem." In Beijing's view, decades of American hostility have driven the DPRK to develop nuclear arms. Thus, it is Washington's responsibility to reduce the threat and negotiate with the North.
The U.S. government obviously does not agree with the PRC's position. But Washington should take China's views into account. Addressing Beijing's concerns would be the most effective, and probably only, means of winning its cooperation against Pyongyang.
For instance, Washington could open an official relationship with North Korea and offer a "grand bargain" to achieve denuclearization of the peninsula. For this America could request Chinese backing. The U.S. could seek coercive Chinese support with the promise that Washington would assist if a North Korean implosion occurred and remove all U.S. military personnel from the peninsula in the event of reunification.
Instead, America, usually through its secretary state, including Clinton, has made a practice of simply telling the PRC what the U.S. desires and complaining when China does not deliver. Alas, the time, if it ever really existed, when Washington could simply dictate to others has passed. Even more, the time when anyone could dictate to Beijing has passed.
Which has led to numerous proposals to force the PRC to pressure the North. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) once proposed threatening the entire bilateral relationship to get results. Others have taken the Clinton position, that the U.S. should initiate military counter-measures which would discomfit China as well as North Korea.
Presumably there is an unpleasant enough sanction or two which would cause Beijing to do America's will. However, the PRC's pain threshold probably is quite high. Likely higher than Washington's determination to act.
After all, rising nationalistic powers are not inclined to let foreigners dictate to them. Just look at America's experience. Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute! shouted Americans when confronted by the Barbary Pirates two centuries ago. Washington likely would have to do much more than it, or Clinton, originally imagined to force Beijing's compliance.
Indeed, a refusal to submit characterized China's response to U.S. and South Korean plans to deploy the THAAD anti-missile system in the Republic of Korea. Beijing's relationship with Seoul, recently on the upswing, has tanked. The Chinese foreign minister announced that the PRC "will take necessary measures to defend national security interests and regional strategic balance."
Ramping up military threats against China is likely to cause it to respond in kind. The U.S. is wealthier and more powerful, but the PRC has greater interests at stake, which means it is willing spend and risk more. In a sense Beijing, as the weaker power, must do whatever is necessary to maintain its credibility, lest Washington attempt to dictate to China in other areas. No potential great power would allow that to occur.
Moreover, attempts at coercion, whether or not successful, would poison future relations, which would be dangerous for the world's two most important nations. A century ago Germany and Austria-Hungary confronted Imperial Russia in a dispute over Bosnia. Russian officials backed down--all the while muttering "never again." Their refusal to compromise in the summer of 1914 in the crisis involving Russia's ally Serbia greatly contributed to the outbreak of World War I.
While no one expects a similar conflict in East Asia, the various territorial disputes as well as North Korean provocations create manifold military tripwires. And America's alliances with Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea could draw the U.S. into even local incidents otherwise of minimal interest to Washington.
American policymakers understandably are frustrated by China's continuing support for North Korea. However, threats like that advocated by Clinton almost certainly would be counter-productive. The U.S. is unlikely to apply pressure sufficient to coerce Beijing into acting against its interest. But the attempt would make China less willing to cooperate in the future.
Instead, Washington needs to relearn the art of diplomacy and seek to persuade rather than dictate. Doing so might not be as satisfying as making demands. But such a course would be more likely to succeed. Which should be everyone's objective in dealing with North Korea. Ironically, despite his bluster, incoming President Donald Trump may be more open to such an approach than would have been a President Hillary Clinton.