Over the last few months there have been some big changes in how the Donald Trump administration views the geopolitical situation in Asia. It would seem that Team Trump has decided to revert to what I would argue was their original intention: making China their number one foreign policy priority.
From policy documents that all but label Beijing an enemy, to aggressive negotiations that have turned sour over trade, to pushing through Congress a large increase in military spending that is geared towards negating China’s growing military might, this administration clearly has its sights on winning what has become the great power competition of the 21st century.
But all that comes at a price—as in China torpedoing Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign towards North Korea. With 90 percent or more of North Korea’s external trade passing through China in one way or another, Beijing will attempt to use Pyongyang as a bargaining chip—especially on matters of trade and tariffs. Clearly, there is no hope of a new “maximum pressure” campaign if China won’t enforce it—and they won’t if they know America’s goal is their own containment. There even seems to be evidence that China has already decided to end pressure on North Korea, a clear signal that Trump will pay a price for his stance.
Because of this shift in the administration’s focus, my own views on what can and should be U.S. strategy towards the North Korea situation have shifted as well. Specifically, my fear is that Trump will both take on China’s bid for hegemony and pressure Beijing to help with a new “maximum pressure” campaign against the Kim regime’s nuclear program.
That would be a total disaster. Such a move would ensure that China dominates Asia with a nuclear North Korea as a close ally. Neither would fear America, thanks to our declining position in the region.
My advice to Trump: if you want a successful Asia policy, there is one threat above all others that needs your attention—and that is China. Everything else, even North Korea’s potential 65 nuclear weapons, pales in comparison. And if the price of a successfully contained China with the international order still intact is a nuclear North Korea, as much as it breaks my heart to say this, so be it.
That is something I never thought I would say, but in the great game of global politics, even a superpower can’t have everything it wants. None of this will be an easy sell to the foreign policy elites here in Washington, but it is a choice worth making. Smart foreign policy is the art of making tough choices: setting priorities and then sticking with those priorities. Trying to do everything, even for a nation as powerful as the United States, is hubris of the worst kind. It ensures that you accomplish nothing.
Case in point: Barack Obama’s so-called “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific back in 2011. While well-intentioned—I strongly supported it at the time—it failed miserably, falling victim to an administration that tried to put out fires all over the world while achieving nothing. With European allies angry about the use of the word “pivot”—an implication that America was shifting its attention elsewhere—and the domestic chaos of sequestration at home, efforts to increase U.S. military capabilities in Asia were thwarted (and redirected back to Eastern Europe and the Middle East). The Obama administration ended up convincing China to act aggressively while it was preoccupied elsewhere.
And act she did. In perhaps the best omen of China’s future intentions, Beijing built multiple artificial islands in the South China Sea and militarized them while ignoring an international court ruling that its claims to 80 percent of that body of water were bogus and illegal. What did the Obama administration do? They sailed around them, or conducted freedom of navigation operations, commonly known as FONOPS, to show their displeasure. As a Chinese naval officer told me back in late 2016: “We don’t care about your stupid FONOPS. We care about our ability to project power. Law is only as good as it can be enforced.”
So knowing that America must focus its energies on China, what does Washington now do about North Korea? While I would never suggest that we declare our acceptance of Kim’s nukes, we should encourage South Korea to take the lead and work to develop a long-term détente on the Korean Peninsula. A first step in that direction would be a “deceleration for declaration” deal. Such an agreement would see America, North and South Korea, the UN secretary general, and China all gather to declare the Korean War over. At the same time, Kim would declare the size of his nuclear and missile arsenals. To encourage Pyongyang to do this—and show that America was not after a target list—we would not ask for the locations of his nukes or missiles, just an accounting.
From here, much could be accomplished. Each side would make matching concessions in a simultaneous fashion, rather than one or the other going first. The goal of the complete elimination of Kim’s nuclear weapons would remain, but overall strategic stability would be the primary objective, ensuring we never go back to the days of “fire and fury.” Possible concessions could include Kim agreeing to a nuclear and missile production freeze and eventual reductions, conventional arms control agreements to limit offensive firepower along the Demilitarized Zone, and even consular offices to increase trust between Washington and Pyongyang.
Containing China while limiting the North Korean nuclear threat—but not eliminating it—is a very achievable and worthwhile goal. Let’s just hope the administration won’t try and get everything it wants in Asia—and end up with nothing.
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its publishing arm The National Interest. Previously, he led the foreign policy communications efforts of the Heritage Foundation, and served as editor-in-chief of The Diplomat and as a fellow at CSIS:PACNET. The views expressed are his own.