The escalating trade dispute between the United States and China could distract Beijing from dealing with nuclear North Korea and undermine its efforts to enforce international sanctions, potentially hampering the U.S. attempt to denuclearize the country, experts said.
Even as the Trump administration pursues its “maximum pressure” campaign to push North Korea to denuclearize, Washington has engaged in rounds of talks with China that have turned into a bitter tit-for-tat trade war.
With the aim of making American-made goods competitive in the United States relative to cheaper Chinese imports, the U.S. launched an investigation into Chinese trade policies in 2017. Washington imposed tariffs on more than $250 billion out of total $539 billion worth of Chinese goods the United States imported in 2018.
Beijing retaliated by raising tariffs on $110 billion of a total $120 billion U.S. goods imported last year.
The latest hike came earlier in May when the Trump administration raised U.S. tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports from 10% to 24%. Trump threatened to add a 24% tariff on the remaining $325 billion worth of imports from China.
This was followed by Beijing’s retaliatory tariff hike on American goods as high as 25% from 10%, affecting $60 billion in American imported goods starting June 1.
China has accused the United States of starting what it called “the largest war in economic history” and an “economic terrorism.” On Sunday, China said it will “not back down’ in the escalating trade war with the United States.
Tension between Beijing and Washington over a trade deal has caused concern among North Korean watchers wondering if the dispute will affect the U.S. effort to denuclearize North Korea.
China, as North Korea’s largest trading partner, is responsible for approximately 90% of its imports and exports. As such, Beijing could play a pivotal role in denuclearizing the nation on its southeastern border, because according to William Overholt, a senior research fellow and Asia expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “China is very determined to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons.”
The consuming battles in the U.S.-China bilateral trade agreements could distract China from the North Korean nuclear issue, said Scott Snyder, director of the U.S.-Korea policy program at the Council of Foreign Relations.
“The main impact of trade tensions between the U.S. and China is (lowering) the priority of North Korea as an issue on the agenda of U.S.-China relations,” said Snyder. “And so, it’s going to be harder to get China to cooperate as much as the United States would like because they’re focused on other issues in the relationship.”
The biggest role China could play in denuclearizing North Korea is enforcing international sanctions issued since 2016. Targeting Pyongyang’s key export commodities such as coal and seafood, the sanctions were designed to cut off foreign income that could be used to support its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Joseph DeTrani, a former U.S. special envoy for nuclear talks with North Korea, emphasized China’s role in enforcing sanctions, saying, “Failure to work in concert (with China) in sanctions implementation would weaken our efforts to succeed with North Korea and its nuclear and missile programs.”
But a drawn-out trade war could make Beijing do less to enforce the sanctions, according to Ryan Hass, who served as the director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the National Security Council from 2013 to 2017.
“The level of rigor that sanctions are enforced (with) depends upon the level of manpower and the level of resources that are devoted to the task,” said Hass.“It isn’t necessarily the case that China would turn its back on the sanctions, but it may just choose to allocate its resources and its manpower to other priorities.”
After all, Beijing is more concerned with achieving its chief objective of stability than it is with sanctions, said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“While the sour climate and rising tensions in U.S.-China relations complicates U.S. diplomacy on North Korea, China’s cooperation was never a favor to the U.S.,” said Manning. “Beijing’s interests on the Korean Peninsula toward North Korea (have) been based on a sober assessment of China’s desire to see a non-nuclear Korea and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
China, as one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), joined the rest of the UNSC members in issuing stronger sanctions on North Korea in response to multiple missile and nuclear tests it conducted in 2016 and 2017.
When Washington and Pyongyang began engaging diplomatically in 2018, culminating in their first historical summit in Singapore in June 2018, Beijing suggested international sanctions on North Korea be eased. Several months after the Singapore summit, a report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission came out indicating China has relaxed enforcing sanctions on North Korea.
Diplomatic efforts have been stalled since the breakdown of their second summit in Hanoi in February. At issue were conflicting demands and expectations: Pyongyang wanted all sanctions lifted before undertaking a step-by-step denuclearization process, while Washington wanted full denuclearization before lifting sanctions. Given that, the trade disagreements between Washington and Beijing could push China to truncate its support on sanctions, said Stapleton Roy, former U.S. ambassador to China during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations.
“Under those circumstances, it’s not clear whether China will be as willing as it was before to support very strong sanctions on North Korea,” said Roy.
Bruce Klingner, former CIA deputy division chief for Korea and current senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Beijing could not threaten outright to refuse to implement sanctions as a trade negotiations tactic since doing so would be defying the U.N. But “Beijing could, however, be less vigilant in implementing and enforcing U.N. sanctions,” said Klingner.
Complicating the matter, Snyder said if Beijing views Washington attempting to prevent China’s economic ascendency over the U.S. while engaged in the trade war, its interpretation of the U.S. attitude could induce it to curtail “the amount of cooperation that (it could) provide the United States on North Korea.”