US-China trade war ‘saps Beijing’s incentive’ to pressure Pyongyang on nuclear weapons
World’s great powers are turning North Korea into a competition for influence, analyst says
The US-China trade war is eroding Beijing’s incentive to work with Washington in pressuring Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons programme, according diplomatic observers.
With Washington and China announcing fresh tariffs on Monday, China was likely to use the denuclearisation issue as a bargaining chip in the trade war with the United States, they said, despite Beijing saying earlier that the two issues were separate.
Harry Kazianis, director of defence studies at the Washington-based Centre for the National Interest, said the two issues were tied.
“When Trump came into the office, his goal was to take on China … but as North Korea started to test its intercontinental ballistic missiles and upgraded nuclear weapons [targeting the US], he needed China’s help to contain North Korea to denuclearise,” Kazianis said.
“But when [Trump] is hitting China with tariffs, China is less likely to help the president containing North Korea …. I think we can say the maximum pressure is over.”
Trump on Monday announced a new batch of tariffs on US$200 billion worth of Chinese imports to the US, significantly widening the scope of a trade war that American companies are fighting to contain. Beijing responded on Tuesday with duties on US$60 billion in US goods.
Chinese officials have previously said the trade confrontation is not related to the Korean peninsula, and that Beijing would continue to seek denuclearisation.
But it also said imposing sanctions would not help Pyongyang, and has been engaging the reclusive state in economic talks. Trump has since accused China of not pushing North Korea hard enough to advance the process.
Kazianis said China was likely to use the denuclearisation issue as a bargaining chip with the US and had the power to slow the process down.
“What incentive does Beijing have to help on the North Korean issue? It has none now,” he said.
“North Korea is becoming a place where the great powers compete for greater influence against one another.”
Boo Seung-chan, a research fellow at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul, also said the trade war would have a negative impact on the denuclearisation process.
“From a traditional realists’ approach, inter-Korean relations often become a ‘dependant variable’ of US-China relations. As China is also an important actor on denuclearisation, China might use the North Korean issue as leverage against the US,” Boo said.
But he said South Korean President Moon Jae-in was trying to overcome the risk of trade war fallout by improving ties with the North.
“When Seoul is actively acting as an actor, the impact of the great power rivalry is likely to be limited,” Boo said. “After all, China’s top priority in the region is stabilisation of the Korean peninsula for the continuation of domestic economic growth. It would also want a settlement of permanent peace on the peninsula.”
Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are in Pyongyang to discuss denuclearisation and steps towards declaring an end to the Korean war.
The summit comes after Trump cancelled a trip by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang last month, citing slow progress on denuclearisation.
For Pyongyang, denuclearisation means “phased and synchronised measures” that involve compensation from the international community as it gradually gives up its nuclear weapons. But the US has insisted on applying maximum pressure on the regime.
Kazianis said that despite the difficulties, progress could still be made if Pyongyang showed it was sincere about the process such as submitting a list of the warheads it would withdraw.
“Some of the UN Security Council resolutions may be lifted, and Seoul may also lift its unilateral sanctions, if North Korea is making some concessions,” he said.