In June 1950 US President Harry Truman let North Korea set the course of US—China relations. Sixty-seven years later, with the Korean War still unresolved, President Trump is poised to make the same mistake.
The Road Not Taken
Just after North Korean forces invaded the south, Truman decided to protect the losing side in a Chinese civil war he believed was all but over. The defeated forces of the Republic of China (ROC) had abandoned their capital in Nanjing and fled to the island of Taiwan. The armies of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were massing for an attack. Truman unequivocally rejected pleas for help from ROC President Chiang Kai-shek and his supporters in the US Congress. But the North Korean invasion changed his mind, and with it the course of modern Asian history.
Had Truman not linked the conflict in Korea to the Chinese civil war by placing the US 7th fleet between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, the Chinese leadership may have felt less threatened by the US military intervention in Korea. Chinese forces may have continued to prepare to cross the Taiwan Straight instead of crossing the Yalu river. General McArthur might have defeated the north and unified the country. With no rival government in Taibei to occupy its seat at the United Nations, China may have been less inclined to lean towards Moscow or to develop nuclear weapons. And the rapprochement that began with President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 might have started decades earlier.
It is impossible to know what might have been. But it may be useful to imagine how events in Asia might have unfolded if Harry Truman had not let Kim Il Sung alter US policy on China. It’s a thought experiment that could be especially helpful to the Trump administration, which is planning to hand Kim’s grandson another North Korean veto over improved US—China relations.
Trump’s China Policy Review
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently told a departmental assembly that the new administration was “immediately confronted with a serious situation in North Korea.” A review of US policy, completed with the assistance and support of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, determined the United States should “lean hard” on China’s leaders and “test their willingness to use their influence” to resolve the situation. More importantly, Tillerson and Mattis concluded this was “a good place to start our engagement with China.”
But making the North Korean nuclear weapons program a test case for US engagement with China is unlikely to end well. The US and Chinese governments both want a denuclearized Korean peninsula, but they have irreconcilable differences on how to achieve it. Dialing up the pressure to see if China’s leaders will yield is more likely to diminish the already low level of strategic trust between Washington and Beijing.
Divergent Views of the Korean Woods
The United States wants China to strangle the North Korean economy. China’s leaders don’t believe that will stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. It’s a conviction born from personal experience. The United States employed the same strategy against China in the 1950s and it didn’t work. Isolation and intimidation only strengthened China’s resolve to develop nuclear weapons. Chinese officials believe the Koreans will respond the same way.
Instead of creating an economic crisis, which heightens tensions, encourages risk-taking and could lead to war, Chinese leaders believe that North Korean economic stability is more likely to contribute to a peaceful resolution of the situation. They’ve agreed to UN sanctions targeting imports directly related to the development of nuclear and missile technology. But at the same time China has increased bilateral trade and economic aid. China’s leaders may be willing to impose short-term economic costs to signal displeasure, but imposing long-term restrictions designed to cripple North Korea’s economy would be a dramatic departure from current Chinese policy.
A Road to Failure
The new US Secretary of State and his counterpart at the Pentagon do not seem to recognize that there is a principled disagreement between China and the United States on North Korean policy. Tillerson and Mattis appear to interpret Chinese choices that are at odds with their own as evidence of incapacity, unwillingness or bad faith. So they’ve decided to “lean hard into China” to try to push its leaders to adopt and implement US policy preferences instead of their own.
Given the stakes for China, its leaders are likely to keep their own counsel. There is little reason for the Chinese to believe that President Trump and his advisors understand the North Koreans better than they do.
Tillerson told the assembly at State he hopes to set up the next half century of US-China relations. Tying the long-term future of the US—China relationship to a dramatic shift in Chinese policy on North Korea is a prescription for disappointment. Attempting to affect that shift through intimidation and brinkmanship is almost certain to fail.
Truman’s decision to link North Korean behavior to the US relationship with China created decades of misunderstanding and mistrust. Though times have changed and the issues are different the risks of giving North Korea undue influence over the long-term future of US—China relations remain, and deserve more careful consideration.