On his way out of office, former U.S. President Barack Obama reportedly advised his successor, Donald Trump, that North Korea would be the next administration's greatest challenge. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will take on that challenge during his first visit to Asia since assuming his role, a three-country tour that kicked off in Japan today and also includes stops in South Korea and China. Over the next five days, Tillerson is expected to discuss the dangers of North Korea's nuclear weapons development program and to address the regional security balance more generally. Tillerson will also likely try to pressure the Chinese government to take a tougher stance on North Korea, now that Washington is finalizing its own policy toward the country. But the chief U.S. diplomat will find that the United States and China have diverging priorities to consider as they reassess their strategies for managing the precarious situation on the Korean Peninsula.
Though the Trump administration has doubtless considered a variety of options for dealing with Pyongyang, none is particularly promising. Engaging the North Korean government in a dialogue, for example, would do little to slow the progress of its nuclear weapons program and could unnerve U.S. allies in the region. Military action, meanwhile, would risk a response from Beijing while also jeopardizing the region's security. Considering the drawbacks of each strategy, the Trump administration probably will follow its predecessors' example, at least for now and increase sanctions on North Korea, reinforce missile defense systems in and around the Korean Peninsula, and pressure China to crack down on Pyongyang. In fact, Tillerson has already raised the idea of expanding the United States' missile defense support to South Korea and imposing secondary sanctions on Chinese companies that do business in North Korea.
But the Chinese government insists that it can take a tougher stance on North Korea only if the United States agrees to withdraw the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system, which it started to deploy last week to South Korea. In the meantime, Washington's escalated efforts to coerce Beijing to take action against Pyongyang will probably only heighten the tension between China and the United States. And that would put Seoul, which depends on its relationships with both countries to fulfill its security and economic needs, in an even trickier situation.
Beijing's position isn't easy, either. For one thing, North Korea's recalcitrance and erratic government are no less a threat to China. For another, Beijing's unwillingness or inability to bring Pyongyang into line has pushed Seoul to deepen its security alliance with Washington and, in turn, prompted the United States to increase its military presence in the region. This has made it increasingly difficult for Beijing to ensure stability on the Korean Peninsula and keep it (at least partially) neutral, two of its primary objectives. For decades, Beijing achieved those goals by maintaining amenable relationships with both North and South Korea, as it did in the 1990s, or by playing the two off each other. (China employed the latter strategy during the Cold War and again during the early years of recently ousted South Korean President Park Geun-hye's term — the so-called "Seoul Honeymoon.") But as relations with both Koreas have soured, Beijing, like Washington, has had to reconsider its strategy.
For now, Beijing's best bet for managing the situation appears to be leading a new round of multilateral negotiations with the United States and North Korea, or persuading the next administration in Seoul to remove the THAAD system. But neither path guarantees success. North Korea and the United States seem more interested in projecting their military power than in heading back to the negotiating table. In South Korea, meanwhile, the threat of Pyongyang's aggression, combined with public outrage over China's economic retaliation against South Korean businesses, will overshadow popular opposition to THAAD and could drive Seoul further into Washington's arms.
Whatever it does to try to preserve the tenuous peace on the Korean Peninsula, Beijing will still have to address its policy toward North Korea. And if its current approach is untenable, the alternatives are hardly more palatable. Beijing could try to ease the tension with Pyongyang — for instance by offering diplomatic concessions or increased aid — though the North Korean administration's continued defiance and provocations would make that difficult. Furthermore, some Chinese policy and academic circles are calling on Beijing to take a harder line with North Korea by sanctioning Kim Jong Un's administration, ousting the leader or even supporting U.S.-led surgical strikes on targets in the country. But that kind of strategy would require China to accept the costs and consequences of the Kim dynasty's collapse.
The negotiations between the United States and China over North Korea will almost certainly entail compromise on both sides. Washington and Beijing already have discussed the possibility of adjusting the power and range of the THAAD's radar systems to address China's concerns. And depending on how open Beijing is to cooperating with Washington on North Korea, the Trump administration may use a similar approach to pressure China over other issues, from trade to the South China Sea.